Jail deaths draw attention

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Sunday, June 16, 2013

PUNTA GORDA — An inmate at the Charlotte County Jail has come forward with accusations of mistreatment by jail authorities in connection with the death of a jailed homeless man.

The death occurred the morning of June 9 at the facility, while the homeless man was strapped to a ‘restraining chair.’

Prior to his death, Thomas Robert Andreasen, 48, may have been sprayed with a chemical agent before being put in the chair and left for hours without a shower to wash off the chemicals, despite complaints that he ‘was burning,’ according to a letter written by inmate Damien Deleon Jones, a 34-year-old Fort Myers resident who has been incarcerated since April 12.

The letter states Jones was just a few cells down when the death occurred. He wrote a detailed account of the events leading to Andreasen’s death.

Andreasen, who had been arrested on a panhandling charge, was found unresponsive in his cell around 10 a.m., according to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. The cause of death is currently under investigation, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Bowe.

Andreasen was the second inmate to die at the jail in less than two weeks. On May 29, Victor Hope Akers, 56, of Port Charlotte, was found dead after authorities said he dove headfirst off the second floor of a housing pod, according to a report. His death also remains under investigation, Bowe said.

Jones said Andreasen was placed in the chair because he was acting erratically due to going through detox.

Bowe confirmed that both Jones and Andreasen were confined in a section of the jail for inmates with medical issues at the time of Andreasen’s death.

Jones, a registered sex offender, is being held on charges of possession of cocaine, giving false identification to a law officer, possession of a weapon by a violent career offender, possession of drug paraphernalia and driving while license is suspended or revoked. During his time at the jail, he also has been charged with battery by a prison or jail detainee. Following that latest charge, he is being held without bond.

Capt. Norman A. Wilson, assistant jail commander, said that it is common practice for corrections officers to use a chemical agent on inmates when they become too unruly to be restrained safely. He said officers try to allow the inmates to shower as soon as they are sprayed, but often they can’t get them to settle down enough to remove them from the chair and get them into the shower.

‘It comes down to the safety of the officer,’ Wilson said. ‘People who are placed in the chair are going through a personal crisis; they are mentally unstable and they are out of control.’

Sometimes that means using a Taser to subdue them, Wilson said, and in some cases, those inmates are fitted with a ‘spit mask,’ or a mesh mouth cover that is not intrusive to breathing, to prevent them from spitting. After they are restrained, a nurse does a physical inspection and they are ‘cared for continuously’ until they have settled down enough to be removed from restraints.

Wilson said he wishes the county had a more humane way to allow the inmates to ‘hash it out,’ like a padded room where they could be placed until they settled down.

Despite its reputation, restraining-chair treatment is commonplace in state correctional facilities.

In February the family of an Ohio man settled in court with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office after Nick Christie, then 62, died in jail in 2009 from circumstances similar to the ones in the Andreasen case, according to a WINK News report.

The lawsuit alleged individual deputies and nurses at the Lee County Jail were guilty of assault and battery, the use of excessive force, and deliberate indifference to Christie’s medical condition when they strapped him naked to a restraining chair, fitted him with a spit mask and used pepper spray on him more than a dozen times, WINK reported.

While CCSO authorities declined to comment on whether Andreasen had been sprayed or masked, as his death is an open investigation, Sheriff Bill Prummell said he has no plans to change any jail procedural policies until the investigation is complete.

‘I don’t want to jump to any conclusions …,’ Prummell said. ‘(The chair) is not meant to punish anyone; it’s just meant to control them to keep them from hurting themselves, as well as my deputies.’

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