State officials say they no longer use ‘restraint chairs’ detailed in immigrant abuse allegations

By: - September 6, 2018 6:01 am

A restraint chair used by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay. (Wikimedia Commons)

Virginia juvenile justice officials say the state hasn’t strapped a child in their custody to a chair since 2015.

“We don’t feel it’s necessary to use things like that,” Andrew Block, the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, told members of the Board of Juvenile Justice at a meeting on Wednesday.

But that’s not necessarily the case at locally-run juvenile detention facilities like the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, where a group of immigrant children housed there through a federal contract have alleged in a lawsuit they were strapped to chairs with hoods placed over their heads.

In other instances, the children alleged they were handcuffed, beaten and left in solitary confinement for long periods of time.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first time state officials publicly discussed their response to the allegations in detail.

Block said that while state facilities have phased out the use of the chairs, local juvenile detention facilities are still permitted to use them. He said his department will present more information about those regulations at their next meeting in November so the panel of citizen-appointees can decide if they should be changed.

“One of the things that I guess has alarmed some is the use of, particularly, the restraint chair,” he said. “They also used something at Shenandoah that I’m going to call a spit hood … something that literally goes over a kid’s head. …

“Those things are permitted by our regulations, both our current regulations and our recommended regulations … But what has been alleged in the lawsuit I think is sufficient in my mind to re-raise the issue.”

Department of Juvenile Justice Director Andrew Block at a meeting of the state's Board of Juvenile Justice. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 5, 2018)
Department of Juvenile Justice Director Andrew Block at a meeting of the state’s Board of Juvenile Justice. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 5, 2018)

He said in state facilities staff members have been trained to emphasize deescalation when detainees are aggressive or hurting themselves. If that doesn’t work, they use their hands to physically restrain children until they can be treated in a hospital. He said the issue typically comes up in cases where children are injuring themselves, for instance, banging their heads into a wall.

“We have made it a huge priority to refocus our staff so that they are more skilled at deescalation, have better relationships and are proactively intervening when young people are beginning to show signs of stress,” he said. “And a lot of the recommendations we made for Shenandoah focus on the need to train their staff more intensively to work that way, and to their credit, they seem very willing to do that.”

According to a report prepared by the department, the state’s last use of a restraint chair in 2015 was to transport a detained child on campus.

Transportation is the only remaining permitted use of the chairs by the state and only as a last resort. Between 2011 and 2015, the state only used the chairs five times at its Bon Air detention facility: three times for transportation and twice to prevent “active self-injurious behaviors,” according to the report.

While the board will take up mechanical restraints at their next meeting, they voted Wednesday to fast track new regulations related to another finding stemming from the department’s investigation into the Shenandoah center.

Officials found that they didn’t actually have access to children being detained in the facility through its outside contract with the federal government.

As a result, they were only able to interview immigrant detainees with permission and while staff members were present. They were also denied access to copies of case files and weren’t allowed to keep written notes.

“Theoretically the feds could bar us as a certified agency from accessing kids who are in the federal program,” Block said. “Part of the problem is that they almost exist in an entirely different country and setting even though they’re in the commonwealth of Virginia, in a facility over which we would otherwise have oversight.”

The new regulation approved by the board stipulates that local juvenile detention centers can only enter into outside contracts if they guarantee state access and compliance with state regulations.

“Part of our investigation was coming to the realization that there’s an oversight gap,” Block said. “I’ve been asked, ‘Well, why didn’t you figure this out before?’ Well, as far as I’m aware, there haven’t been allegations like this before.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.