Editor’s note: An I-Team investigation found more than a dozen lawsuits against area jails claiming inmates were beaten, raped, medically neglected or killed in jail. In addition to possibly costing taxpayers dearly, advocates for inmates say these cases suggest a failure of the system to protect vulnerable people in public custody. Read our full investigation here.
Montgomery County jail corrections officers are required to document every time they use force on an inmate, such as pepper spraying or forcing them to the ground. Montgomery County records say from mid-2015 to mid-2016 such incidents averaged 15 times per month.
“The Sheriff’s Office policy is that its personnel will use only the force that is reasonably necessary to bring an incident under control, while protecting the lives of personnel and the public,” the policy states. On pepper spray, it says it should be used “only when lesser levels of force are not successful, but before a level of force that requires bodily harm to the suspect.”
Sheriff Phil Plummer said pepper spray allows officers to subdue unruly, violent inmates while minimizing physical struggles that can lead to more severe injury.
“Pepper spray is a tool we use,” he said. “It’s a tool we use so five corrections officers don’t have to use physical force on an individual. It is merely pepper. It’s an irritant. It’s to get an individual to stop his aggressive behavior.”
Such incidents are supposed to be recorded with a hand-held camera giving the best view of what happened. But of the 11 use of force incidents for which this newspaper obtained video, only two included a hand-held camera.
One of those incidents involved now-suspended Capt. Judith Sealey and came on Jan. 3, 2016, a little more than a month after the pepper-spray incident involving Amber Swink.
In her written report on the January incident, Sealey wrote that inmate James Roberts was uncooperative while being booked into the jail and was put into a holding cell where he began banging on the window.
“I approached Roberts and informed him that he would be sprayed with OC (pepper) spray if he continued this behavior. Roberts continued after I had walked away. Myself, along with several officers returned to the cell and I administered several bursts of OC spray to Roberts,” her report says. “Roberts was laying on the ground and was removed and placed into the restraint chair without further incident.”
Hand-held video of the incident begins as officers wearing gas masks approach Roberts’ cell. He can neither be seen nor heard from until Sealey, after tinkering with the pepper spray canister, shoots through the food port. He can then be heard coughing.
The video cuts out and a second video shows Roberts escorted from his cell and strapped into a restraint chair.
“I can’t breathe,” he says several times as he is being strapped into the chair.
“You talking, you breathing,” one officer can be heard saying on the video.
Roberts later apologized for his behavior, according to Sealey’s report.
In many cases, the jail cameras capture little and have no audio. One of the lawsuits accuses officers of intentionally using their bodies to block the view of an altercation.
In two instances that didn’t lead to discipline or a lawsuit, Sealey wrote that she asked unruly inmates to put their faces up to the food port before shooting them with pepper spray. Videos of both incidents show the inmates getting strapped into restraint chairs after the pepper spray is administered.