ACLU Wins Damages for Iowa Woman Strapped Naked to a Wooden Board in County Jail

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
January 29, 2001 12:00 am

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DES MOINES–Issuing a strong rebuke to a local sheriff’s department, a federal jury on Friday awarded $5,000 in damages to a woman who was strapped naked, spread-eagle fashion, upon a wooden board while in custody at a county jail.

The woman, identified in legal papers as “Jane Doe” to protect her privacy, was represented by the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which filed the action in February of 1998.

“The jury was clearly shocked at the brutal and humiliating treatment our client received at the hands of law enforcement officers,”said Ben Stone, Executive Director of the Iowa ACLU.

“A lot can go on in jails without the public knowing,” he said. “Officials operating jails must understand that humiliating people is not within their job description.”

Punitive damages were assessed against Story County Sheriff Paul H. Fitzgerald and actual damages allowed against several of his deputies who refused to admit that strapping the woman naked to a large round board in spread-eagle fashion was wrong.

When the Iowa ACLU initially filed the lawsuit, Stone noted, Sheriff Fitzgerald unequivocally denied the allegations of misconduct and issued a press release accusing the ACLU of engaging in “reckless and irresponsible” behavior through the filing of a “frivolous” and “untrue” lawsuit.

In trial, however, the jail employees did not deny strapping the woman naked to the board, and said that they would do it again. The jury found that Fitzgerald was “recklessly and callously indifferent” to “Jane Doe’s” constitutional rights.

Evidence at trial showed that the woman was arrested for public intoxication and had been moved to a padded cell where her clothing had been removed. Later, following a shift change at the jail, the decision was made to remove the woman from her cell and place her naked face-down on a wooden board with her legs and arms strapped down spread-eagled.

The defendants testified that she was left in that position for more than three hours. Throughout the woman’s ordeal, video monitors transmitted nude images of her to monitors mounted in the front office of the jail. Eventually, her buttocks were covered by a towel. Most of the deputies on duty were male.

In a 1998 interview with the Des Moines Register, the inventor of the restraining board, Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller, publicly defended Story County’s use of the device, saying that “the odor of the wood seems to have a natural calming effect.”

ICLU Executive Director Ben Stone dismissed the notion that the deputies had any such purpose in mind. “She was calm before they placed her on the board,” he said. Since the ACLU lawsuit was filed, Stone said he has not received any other complaints regarding punitive nude restraint of prisoners.

The woman in the case was represented by Pat Hulting of Des Moines and Ames attorney Steve Terrill. The case was heard by a jury impaneled before the Hon. Ross Walters, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge.

There has been no word yet on whether the Sheriff’s office plans to appeal.

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