Those who watched the final two episodes of “Orange is the New Black” last season witnessed the death of beloved character Poussey Washington. Her death was a tragic accident—the result of a guard’s misuse of force called restraint asphyxia.
What Happened in the Show
The inmates were having a peaceful demonstration when character Crazy Eyes was restrained by a guard. Poussey, a likeable and peaceful character, came to Crazy Eyes’ aid. The guard then restrained Poussey by holding her to the ground and pressing his knee into her back. When the guard got up, it was discovered that Poussey was dead.
Does Restraint Asphyxia Really Work Like That?
Restraint asphyxia, also called positional asphyxia, occurs when a person is placed into a breathing-restricted position. Police officers sometimes use a technique called prone restraint, a technique that involves holding a person face down in a supine position, placing weight on the person’s back, holding the person’s arms behind the person, and sometimes tying the person’s arms and legs behind the person in a hog-tie.
One consequence of the prone-restraint technique is that a person’s diaphragm is compressed. As a result, it becomes difficult to inhale. Most restraint asphyxia deaths occur when the victim has some co-occurring breathing difficulty due to physical exertion, drug use, heart disease, obesity, or asthma. A victim can be rendered unconscious in a matter of minutes.
In the show, Poussey dies within 2-3 minutes. A person can be killed by this prone-restraint technique. Although there were no other factors that would have caused Poussey to have trouble breathing, the guard was placing all of his weight on her back. A death without other exacerbating factors would be atypical.
While the scene may have depicted an exaggerated example of a restraint asphyxia death, the cause-and-effect that the show portrayed was not too far from some tragic real-life cases.
Restraint Asphyxia Lawsuits
Restraint asphyxia victims can bring lawsuits against officers who harmed them. If the victim died, certain surviving family members can bring a wrongful death suit instead. Proving such cases requires showing that the police officer used excessive force. Force can be inherently excessive, or it can be excessive in a particular circumstance (for instance, force that may normally be acceptable could be considered excessive if the victim told officers that he had a medical condition or could not breathe).
Whether force was excessive depends on the facts of each case, including the victim’s behavior, the size of the victim and the officers, and the technique the officer used. In Price v. County of San Deigo, 990 F. Supp. 1230, 1238 (1998), a California federal court determined that the use of prone restraint does not in and of itself constitute an excessive use of force, but when there are exacerbating factors, police may be liable for causing the harm.
For example, in 2013, the estate of Hernan Jaramillo successfully settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Oakland police after a police body camera recorded Jaramillo’s final moments alive, which consisted of him screaming that he could not breathe for over four minutes as an officer used the prone-restraint technique against him. When a suspect complains of breathing difficulties, restraint should immediately stop; but in this case it did not stop until Jaramillo was unconscious.
Officers should no longer be trained to place weight directly on the back of a restrained person who is laying face down. Once restrained, the subject should be turned on their side or sat up so that they can breathe.
Most often officers claim that if the subject is able to speak that they can't breathe, then in fact they must be able to breathe. However, medical research has shown that the shallow breathe necessary to vocalize is not the same as the deep lung breathing necessary to sustain life.
Call the Law Offices of Scott D. Hughes for More Information
At the Law Offices of Scott D. Hughes, we take restraint asphyxia cases very seriously. Mr. Hughes is an experienced police excessive force attorney who is dedicated to getting his clients the compensation they deserve. If you would like more information about restraint asphyxia, contact our office at