Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sheriff to pay $500,000 to settle jail suit


The deal follows a woman's death in a restraint chair.

It does not rule out use of the device.

Stephen Hudak
Sentinel Staff Writer
April 27, 2007

TAVARES -- The Lake County Sheriff's Office has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who died while strapped in a jail restraint chair.

The settlement does not prevent the jail from using a restraint chair, a controversial device that is employed generally to control combative inmates.

The Sheriff's Office accepted no responsibility for the death of Denise Ossick, 39, of Clermont, who was asphyxiated by a leather belt, apparently after trying to wriggle out of the chair.

She died March 3, 2004.

The chair was "MacGyvered," complained Ossick's sister, Dawn Edgar, using a reference to the 1980s TV show to deride an improvised repair that played a part in her sister's death.

Edgar, a California woman who filed the lawsuit on behalf of her sister's three children, said she also thinks the corrections staff put her sister in the restraint chair as punishment.

"They were sick of hearing her cuss," Edgar said in an e-mail.Bruce R. Bogan, an Orlando lawyer who represented the Sheriff's Office, said the corrections staff did not violate Ossick's civil rights or act negligently, as the lawsuit charged.

Bogan said the settlement to Ossick's children, all of whom are now adults and living in their mother's home state of Rhode Island, was paid by the Florida Sheriff's Self-Insurance Fund.

The children's lawyer, Nathan P. Carter, said Ossick's death led to changes at the jail, including closer medical observation of inmates in restraint chairs and improved staff training.

He said the corrections officer who strapped Ossick into the chair had claimed that she hadn't receiving training on its use.

Sheriff Gary Borders, who supervised jail operations under his predecessor Chris Daniels, said the jail now has a policy forbidding officers from using restraint chairs with broken or modified features -- such as the belt.

He defended the restraint chair as a useful tool for corrections staffers who often deal with prisoners who are unruly or determined to hurt themselves.

Ossick ended up in the jail because of a call from her sister.

Edgar had contacted deputies, seeking a "well-being" check on her sister because her sister was planning to leave a bully of a boyfriend and Edgar had been unable to reach her by phone. When deputies found Ossick, they arrested her on an existing warrant accusing her of skipping probation appointments and not paying fines for filing a false police report.

At the jail, the 5-foot-2, 100-pound Ossick resisted orders to disrobe and struggled with corrections officers who tried to wrap her in a padded gown known as a "suicide smock."

Corrections officers opted then to put her in a restraint chair, a slightly reclined, armless metal seat that was bolted to the cell floor. Hands cuffed behind her back, she was tied onto the chair with a leather belt around her chest and a nylon strap around her waist. Her legs were shackled and her ankles cuffed.

Prisoners are typically secured with crisscrossing, automobile-style safety straps that lock on the seat. Court documents did not explain why a leather chest belt was used instead of the crisscrossing straps.When corrections staffers found Ossick, she had wriggled off the chair, though her ankles and legs were still secured to its base. The leather belt was around her neck. A medical examiner ruled that she strangled on the belt, a modification not approved by the chair's manufacturer.

Bogan said the modified chair has not been used since the death, which he called an unfortunate and tragic accident.

State and county corrections officials remain divided about the value of restraint chairs. State prison officials do not use them, citing the risk of asphyxiation as a concern, but restraint chairs have been widely used in jails throughout Central Florida.

Lake County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. John Herrell said the chairs remain an option for corrections staffs to handle inmates who display aggressive or self-destructive behavior.

He said the jail does not track the number of times it is used.

Ossick, who had lost custody of her youngest children and was estranged from her eldest before her death, suffered from medical and psychiatric disorders which were complicated by her abuse of methamphetamine and cocaine, according to court records.

Sheriff's records show jail workers checked her periodically, peering through a glass window on the cell door and logging observation times.

They found her without a pulse, the belt around her neck, at 7:31 p.m. March 3, 2004, 11 minutes after the last logged observation.

The medical examiner listed cocaine as contributing to her death.

Stephen Hudak can be reached at shudak@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5930.

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