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The agreement obligated all parties to a standard and vague response if asked about the matter.
"If, otherwise, asked by a third party to disclose any of the terms of the settlement," the agreement states, "the Parties agree that they, their agents and attorneys shall respond with a neutral comment, to wit: 'The matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all Parties,' and nothing more. No Party, agent or attorney shall intentionally publicize the terms of this settlement."
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, The Rhinoceros Times submitted a request to the Guilford County
Sheriff's Department and the Guilford County
attorney's office for jail reports and other documents related to Armstrong's death and the ensuing settlement. That request was answered on Tuesday, Jan. 15. The Rhinoceros Times reported the story on Thursday, Jan. 24.
Payne said there was always an understanding by everyone involved that the confidentiality clause did not supersede public records law.
County officials were very close-mouthed before the story became public. However, since then, the sheriff, the commissioners, former commissioners and other county officials have been very vocal on the matter.
Barnes said some of his political adversaries want to see someone in the Sheriff's Department "take a fall" for the incident.
Former Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston said someone should pay a price.
"No one has been fired, or reprimanded or held accountable," Alston said.
Alston said the county was lucky the family was willing to settle.
"I wonder if the family got enough money," he said. "They lost a son."
Alston also said he had no political vendetta against Barnes.
"I like BJ, but wrong is wrong," he said.
Several commissioners said the Board of Commissioners grilled Barnes in a two-hour closed session in November after the payment to Armstrong's family had been made.
Payne said that, now that the case is closed, he didn't think the public comments made by county officials could damage the county.
According to Barnes, his department has made changes to assure that this type of thing never happens again. For instance, he said, in the new jail, cameras will remain constantly trained on the restraint chairs. Barnes said the cameras are there to protect inmates and detention officers in the event that questions regarding the use the chair arise in the future.
According to Barnes, though the death was tragic, his officers had very limited options given Armstrong's violent behavior.
Barnes said even padded rooms aren't a solution when someone is truly intent on harming themselves.
"Even with the padded cells where the walls are rubber, he could run into the wall and break his neck," Barnes said.
When asked about the use of straightjackets in the jail, Barnes said jail staff hasn't used that method of restraint since they began using the restraining chairs instead.
Former Commissioner Mike Winstead said that, when he was told about the incident, he wondered if one option might have been for jail medical staff to use tranquilizers to keep Armstrong under control, rather than keeping him confined in the chair for so long.
Barnes said tranquilizers are a tool detention officers have at their disposal, but he added that a doctor must sign off on all drugs administered to inmates, and there's a lot of red tape associated with that.
Barnes also commented that this was a good illustration as to why in the past he has requested that the commissioner fund a position for a mental health nurse for the county's jails. The sheriff said that, despite repeated requests, the board had failed to provide the position.
Barnes said he believed that, if the case had gone to court, and 12 members of a jury had heard all the facts, including Armstrong's behavior leading up the his confinement in the chair, the jury likely would not have found the county to be at fault.
The sheriff said his department has been the target of over 44 lawsuits since 2001 – with 40 of those inmate related – and, in only four of those cases, he said, has the county paid out any money.
Still, Barnes said, he understands the board's decision to settle.
"I don't fault the commissioners," he said. "They have to do what's best for the county – I've got no problem with that."
Barnes also said he respects the opinion of the outside counsel that the county hired.
"Bill Hill is an excellent attorney," Barnes said.
Barnes said Hill examined the probable outcomes and the potential risks of a court loss and – weighing all the financial and legal considerations – Hill came to the conclusion that the best course of action was to settle the matter for $475,000.
Aside from the documentation issue and the question of how long Armstrong was confined to the chair, there were other issues as well. For instance, the jail's oxygen tank wasn't ready and charged when needed after Armstrong collapsed, and nurses appear not to have responded promptly to pleas from jail staff.
In addition to the suit against Guilford County
, the family also brought legal action against Prison Health Services (PHS), which now operates in the county's jails under the name Corizon. One source familiar with the legal negotiations said PHS/Corizon paid out a much higher amount to the family than Guilford County
Payne said he couldn't comment on the PHS/Corizon case.
He said that, after some initial discussions in mediation, the county and PHS handled the matter separately.
"They had their own lawsuit to deal with," Payne said.