'This is bigger than Andrew': 46-hour chair protest ends with call for jail reform

A two-day protest outside the San Luis Obispo Superior Courthouse calling for the resignation of Sheriff Ian Parkinson and a county investigation into the death of former County Jail inmate Andrew Holland came to an emotional close Monday as the last protester was released from his makeshift "restraint" chair.

Scores of activists and supporters of the Holland family rallied at the courthouse steps through the weekend following The Tribune's release Friday of jail video capturing Holland's death. Holland died of an embolism caused by a blood clot on Jan. 22, 2017, shortly after spending roughly 46 hours strapped to a plastic restraint chair in a jail holding cell.

The video published Friday contradicts the Sheriff's Office's version of events surrounding Holland's death, and has prompted calls for Parkinson to step down and drop out his bid for a third term in June.

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Holland's death was among 12 at the jail since 2012. An FBI investigation into the case remains ongoing.

Since learning of their son's fate, the Holland family has emerged as vocal leaders of a growing movement to improve conditions for all people with mental illness stuck in the criminal justice system, as well as calling for major reforms in both policy and culture within the County Jail.

"This is a monster we're taking on here," protester Jesse Cutburth, a longtime friend of Holland, said Monday. "It's not just the Sheriff's department, it's the whole system."

Cutburth was the last activist to complete a two-hour shift in the "chair-in" held throughout the weekend, in which residents, some half-naked, took turns sitting in the chair with limited movement, even through the night. Cutburth said that sitting in the chair for even two hours was painful.

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Jesse Cutburth was the last volunteer to sit in the chair as the 46-hour protest over Andrew Holland's death at the SLO County Jail wrapped up on Monday, March 19, 2018. Cutburth shared happy memories of Andrew Holland from earlier days. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

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"I was able to scratch my nose and I was able to move my feet and my arms a little bit, and I noticed right away after 10 or 15 minutes that I needed to move my arms, at least," he said. "I was able to drink some water and people were coming to check on me — so yeah, nothing at all like what Drew went through."

At about 11 a.m., Holland's parents, brother and cousin marked the close of the impromptu event, thanking the various community groups and residents who helped organize and participate.

"As a mom, I couldn't help but worry about each one of you out here, sitting in that chair, in the cold," Holland's mother Sharon told the crowd.

Carty Holland, Andrew's father, said the chair-in was difficult to watch.

"It just hit me all over again, how long and mercilessly my son sat in this chair," Carty said.

Though protesters called for the resignation of Parkinson and for District Attorney Dan Dow to launch a local investigation into the jail, Andrew's brother Corbin told the crowd the family is also pushing for a change in culture among jail staff. In several instances during the roughly 100 hours of footage obtained by The Tribune, members of the jail staff are seen laughing or otherwise acting inappropriately.

"It's an atmosphere that needs to change for our county, for our community. There's just a simple form of human dignity that we need to treat everyone (with)," Corbin Holland said.

In July, the county awarded the Holland family a $5 million settlement for Andrew's death, which they are using to establish the Andrew Holland Foundation to advocate for people with mental illness stuck in jails.

"This is bigger than Andrew. It's bigger than his death," Sharon Holland said. "This is about so many people who are suffering ... without a voice that never, ever came to light. Well, it is coming to light. And we'll do something about it collectively."

She added: "There will be change."

Matt Fountain 805-781-7909, @mattfountain1