Sunday, May 15, 2011

Florida lawsuit says developmentally disabled men in state facility were confined in restraint chairs, put in seclusion

From The Gainesville Sun:

A Gainesville public interest law firm became the second area firm recently to draw statewide attention when it sued a Florida agency alleging that developmentally disabled men in a state facility were confined in restraint chairs and in seclusion in a manner that violated their constitutional rights.

The suit by Florida Institutional Legal Services seeks class-action status for all those in a facility for residents accused of crimes but who have been declared incompetent to stand trial because of an intellectual disability or autism.

"Restraint and seclusion should only be used when a person is exhibiting an imminent threat to themselves and others. We are just not seeing that," attorney Katherine DeBriere said. "We are seeing people who are exhibiting completely calm behavior and are not being let out of restraint or seclusion, oftentimes on fixed periods of time."

Florida Institutional Legal Services is the second Gainesville public interest law firm to file a recent suit.

In April, Southern Legal Counsel Inc. filed suit against a St. Petersburg company for paying homeless men to be beaten by women. The beatings were filmed and sold on the Internet.

Florida Institutional filed suit against the Agency for Persons with Disabilities on behalf of three people confined under the Mentally Retarded Defendant Program at a facility in Chattahoochee.

The suit alleges that residents are placed in restraint chairs and seclusion for periods beyond what is prescribed in state policies. One resident was subjected to extended seclusion of three to six days on at least four occasions.

Charles Ball, the defendant program's former superintendent and now a bureau chief with the agency, said the facility has capacity for 130 men and 16 women. The residents have been charged with felonies and have been found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others if not confined.

Ball said policies allow use of seclusion and restraint chairs under certain circumstances and for varying amounts of time depending on individual evaluations.

"The agency has zero tolerance for the abuse or neglect of individuals with developmental disabilities regardless of the circumstance," he said. "We would not employ policies or practices that would put people in significant risk of injuring themselves."

Residents who are declared permanently incompetent to stand trial may end up in Gainesville at the Seguin Unit on Northeast 39th Avenue for the length of what their sentence could have been, he added.

Florida Institutional Legal Services was founded in 1978 and currently has seven attorneys.

Among other cases, the firm sued on behalf of mentally ill prisoners in Florida State Prison in Bradford County who were sprayed with chemical agents in recent years when they were having psychotic breakdowns, causing third-degree burns.