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4 Utah counties still use restraint chair despite ban

Four Utah counties still use a restraint chair designed to subdue unruly inmates after a prisoner's death last year forced the state to abandon the device.

And most jail bosses defend continued use of the chair."We have them and you're damn right we'll use them," said Washington County Sheriff Glenwood Humphries, who has purchased three chairs for the new 427-bed Purgatory Flats Correctional Facility outside St. George.

"They are in an area - in a glass container - where we can keep an eye on them at all times, right next to the suicide watch cell," Humph-ries said. "We follow strict policies and procedures on how to maintain them. When you do need them, they are a godsend."

Weber, Salt Lake and Utah counties also use the restraining chairs.

Meanwhile, four of the devices are gathering dust in a warehouse at the Point of the Mountain prison in Draper. One of the four is blamed for last year's death of inmate Michael Valent, who spent 16 hours strapped naked to the chair.

The state banned the use of the so-called "Devil's Chair" and settled a lawsuit brought by Valent's family for $200,000. Medical staff now medicate uncontrollable inmates after strapping them to a metal board.

But county corrections officials contend the chair is a useful alternative.

"Generally, the people put in there are very combative and self-destructive," says Utah County sheriff's Lt. Lana Johnson. "Putting them in there is better than having them beat the walls with their heads or hands."

Supervisors at Salt Lake's Oxbow jail, a minimum-security lockup for misdemeanor offenders, defend use of the chair for the same reasons.

Most jail supervisors insist they explore alternative restraint measures before turning to the chair.

In Weber County, sheriff's deputies and correctional officers use the chair about twice a month. When used, officers must check the inmate's condition every 15 minutes. Every hour, officers are required to free and exercise at least one of the inmate's limbs.

Similar policies exist at the Utah, Oxbow and Purgatory jails.

"We have a very strict policy," said Weber County sheriff's Lt. Klint Anderson."We don't do it as a punishment but as a safety measure."

For attorney Brian Barnard and other advocates for Utah's prison population, the best solution would be to build a secure facility where mentally ill inmates could complete their sentences.

As many as 600 of Utah's 5,200 state prisoners have been diagnosed with a mental condition.

"The prison is not the right place to house mentally ill people," Barnard said.