Cell Extractions

The use of force is inherent in the very nature of involuntary confinement. In prisons, “the responsible deployment of force is not only justifiable on many occasions, but absolutely necessary to maintain the security of the institution.”1 The need to use force in a prison may sometimes include the forcible removal of an inmate from his cell, called a “cell extraction.”

Cell extractions are security measures, not disciplinary mechanisms. In well-managed correctional systems, they are used only in response to an imminent and serious risk to the safety and security of an individual or of the institution. In such prisons, officers know cell extractions are rarely needed; in some prisons, however, the institutional culture permits cell extractions simply to show inmates “who’s in charge” or to retaliate against defiant inmates, even if there is no real emergency.

When the decision has been made that an inmate cannot be allowed to remain in his cell, properly trained staff will make every effort to avoid a forced cell extraction. Officers will talk with the inmate. Indeed, it may be necessary for corrections staff to talk to an inmate for a prolonged period and then allow the inmate a “cooling down” period to increase chances that forcible extraction will not be necessary. Counselors or mental health staff may be brought in to talk to the inmate. If verbal efforts fail, in many facilities pepper spray is used to overcome the inmate’s resistance.2

If officials decide to go ahead with a forcible cell extraction, the increasingly prevalent practice is to use a team of four to six specially trained correctional officers.  They wear protective equipment that typically includes major torso padding, Kevlar sleeves, big black gauntlets, a helmet, a face plate, and a groin guard. The team lines up in front of the cell, and the officers ask the inmate one more time whether he is willing to “cuff up”—submit to restraint and leave the cell. If the inmate continues his resistance, the team enters the cell. Often, the first member of the team to enter the cell carries a large convex Plexiglas shield or a stun shield (a shield equipped with an electric current which stuns the inmate on contact) with which he pins the inmate against the wall. The other members of the team then gain control of and place restraints on the inmate’s arms and legs. In most cases, a well trained cell extraction team is able to secure the removal of even a violent prisoner with minimal or no harm to him or staff. 

1 Madrid v Gomez, 889 F.Supp 1146, 1283 (N.D. Cal. 1995).

2 Even if the inmate is in a cell with a solid door and has blocked the sally port with his mattress, there are devices to make sure the gas enters and overcomes the inmate.