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Suit Over Chair-Shackled Child Will Head to Trial

(CN) - Juvenile detention officials must face a trial on claims that they used a restraint chair meant for violent prisoners to punish a small boy, the 10th Circuit ruled.

Guards for the center in Sedgwick, Kans., have insisted that the Pro-Straint Restraining Chair, Violent Prisoner Model RC-1200LX, served a legitimate penological interest: thwarting attempts by inmates at suicide and self-harm.

But Brandon Blackmon claimed in a federal complaint that he was often put in the chair solely as punishment while he was awaiting trial in 1996.

The chair, which featured boasted restraints for the wrist, waist, chest and ankles, arrived at the center just before Blackmon did.

At the time, Blackmon was the center's youngest and smallest charge, standing at just 4-foot-11 and weighing 96 pounds. The rape charges against him were eventually thrown out.

A federal judge refused to grant immunity to the named defendants: Marla Sutton, Natasha Tyson, Keith Gutierrez, John Hittle, Kirk Taylor and Joan Fitzjarrald.

The Denver-based federal appeals court mostly affirmed Friday.

"Punishment is never constitutionally permissible for presumptively innocent individuals awaiting trial," Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote for a three-member panel.

"There is ample evidence in this case that the defendants at least sometimes used the Pro-Straint chair to punish their young charge," Gorsuch added, stating that one defendant allegedly instructed others to use the chair for "punishment."

Blackmon can take the defendants to trial despite evidence that he may be "alive today thanks to the intervention of facility staff" who put him in the chair at times when he was "deeply distraught," according to the ruling.

"The 11-year-old attempted suicide and repeatedly banged his head dangerously against walls," Gorsuch wrote. "No one disputes that the defendants had a legitimate interest in restraining him from these attempts at self-harm."

But there is also evidence showing that Blackmon was sometimes "shackled to the chair for long stretches when there was no hint he posed a threat of harming himself or anyone else," the ruling states.

"On one occasion, too, the boy was stripped out of his clothes and forced to wear a paper gown while restrained in the chair," Gorsuch added.

Blackmon has also alleged that Gutierrez, one of the facility's senior correction workers, allowed a subordinate who was a fully grown man to sit on the boy's chest "without any penological purpose," the opinion notes.

In addition, Blackmon claimed that Fitzjarrald and Taylor failed to provide him with proper mental health care.

The court disagreed with Blackmon, however, as to his claim against Sutton for her alleged failure to transfer him from the center in Sedgwick to an unlocked shelter, citing the rest of his complaint. The judge granted qualified immunity to Sutton, but allowed Blackmon to continue his case against the other defendants.

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