Stun belts: "Cruel and unusual punishment"
by Julia Lutsky Two devastating reports from Amnesty International (AI), on the widespread use by prison authorities in the US of restraints in the form of handcuffs, chains, and now stun belts, underline the rising tide of repression sweeping the country. The first report was issued in June of 1996. The second, Cruelty in Control? The Stun Belt and Other Electroshock Equipment in Law Enforcement, appeared just three years later in June of this year. One report indicated the existence of a serious problem. That a second report is necessary indicates that, far from being addressed, the use of stun technology, particularly the stun belt, has increased rather than diminished. Both reports detail the use of the Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology (REACT) belt, made by Stun Tech, of Cleveland, Ohio, and the Remote Activated Custody Control (RACC) belt made by Nova Products of Cookville, Tennessee. These stun belts have been in use in US prisons since at least 1993 and are now part of the federal prison system and the US Marshalls Service. Amnesty International lists 112 local jurisdictions in 30 States and the correctional facilities of 20 States as users of the belt. In eight States where the stun belt is not allowed, stun guns, stun shields and taser dart guns are in use. A "driving force in the growth of the use of the stun belt is its alleged potential to cut staff costs". The idea of cutting costs by using a few $800 belts to keep prisoners in check is appealing in an increasingly overcrowded and expensive prison system; the prison population is nearing the two million mark and growing. For the present, prison authorities are limited to using the belts only during the transportation of prisoners, judicial hearings, and for chain gangs. All of these uses, it should be noted, are in violation of international law. According to the UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, "instruments of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains, irons and straightjackets shall never be applied as a punishment. Chains and irons shall not be used as restraints." Restraints may only be used "in order to prevent a prisoner injuring himself or others". They may never be used in a manner which may cause humiliation or degradation. Yet AI reports that "the belt inflicts a 50,000 volt shock [that] enters the prisoner's left kidney region and [travels] along ... nerve pathways. Each pulse ... give[s] rise to a rapid shock extending throughout the body caus[ing] severe pain ... and instant incapacitation." It is designed "for [the] total psychological supremacy ... of potentially troublesome prisoners". After all, according to Stun Tech, "if you were wearing a contraption around your waist that, by the mere push of a button Stun Tech warns that the belt should not be used to "unlawfully threaten, coerce, harass, taunt, belittle or abuse any person", but adds that "as long as it is not used for officer gratification or punishment, liability is non-existent". "Since [1973, when they were introduced,] 'taser' dart guns, as well as direct-touch stun guns, batons and shields have become ... widely ... used by law enforcement officers ...", says the AI report. They are, according to a US Consumer Protection Safety Commission report, "non-lethal to normal healthy adults". Deaths have, however, been caused by the guns, according to one forensic pathologist quoted by AI: "nine individuals who were alive and active, collapsed on tasering and did not survive. In my opinion, the taser contributed to ... these nine deaths ... "It seems only logical that a device capable of depolarising skeletal muscle can also depolarise heart muscle and cause fibrillation ..." In addition, Stun Tech has admitted that "stun belts have accidentally been activated by law enforcement officers nine times as many times as they were deliberately activated." What rights has the prisoner with respect to the belt? "Every prisoner ... is `asked' by the US Bureau of Prisons to sign a form entitled Inmate Notification of Custody Control Belt Use." AI does not report what the consequences might be to a prisoner who refuses to sign. In April 1998 Ronald Hawkins faced sentencing after having been convicted of second degree burglary. He had stolen US$265 worth of painkillers he said were necessary to ease pain caused by AIDS. It was his third felony offence and, given California's "three strikes" policy, he faced a sentence of 25 years to life. He acted as his own lawyer and when he interrupted the judge what she considered to be once too often she admonished him and warned that his stun belt would be activated if he persisted. When he replied that such use would be unconstitutional she ordered the bailiff to activate the device. Of it, Hawkins said: "It was like a stinging in my spine and then a lot of pain in my back. I was paralysed for about four seconds." He filed a federal lawsuit arguing "that making a person wear a stun belt, not just the activation of it, violates the US Constitution". AI submitted an amicus curiae in support of his lawsuit. In January of this year a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction banning the use of the stun belt in Los Angeles courtrooms. He noted that "the stun belt, even if not activated, has the potential of compromising the defence. It has a chilling effect ... An individual wearing a stun belt may not engage in permissible conduct because of the fear of being subjected to the pain of a 50,000 volt jolt of electricity "A pain infliction device that has the potential to compromise an individual's ability does not belong in a court of law." Whereas in 1996 AI called on the United States to "establish a rigorous independent inquiry into the use of stun belts and all other types and variants of electro-shock weapons" and to "immediately suspend the use of stun belts and other electro-shock weapons", it now calls for the outright banning of stun belts. "The use of the stun belt — an inherently cruel and degrading device — when there are effective alternatives should be unacceptable in our society. The stun belt clearly violates international standards, including treaties to which the United States is a party. "The stun belt should be immediately banned and the use of other electro- shock weapons such as stun guns, stun shields and tasers should be suspended pending the outcome of a rigorous, independent and impartial inquiry into the use and the effects of the equipment." Use of stun technology has been banned in some Western European countries and in some States in the United States. US-made electro-shock weapons are, however, sold overseas. Stun belts are now available to the electro-shock arsenals of countries where torture is routinely practiced. "US companies have been marketing ... electro-shock weapons to such countries with the permission of the US Government." AI calls on the federal and state governments to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of stun belts in the US and their export overseas. Given the prevailing attitude of inflicting ever harsher penalties, it is highly unlikely either that any official independent inquiry will be established or that the US will act to curb the export of these items. More likely, their use will spread. As AI says: "Perhaps a society which believes certain of its members can by their actions forfeit their right to life and be executed by the state, more easily tolerates the use of a law enforcement device on prisoners which can cause them severe pain and humiliation at the touch of a button." The US is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article Seven of which states, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the inflicting of "cruel and unusual punishments". And yet the stun belt, which inflicts cruel and unusual punishment, is available and utilised in the United States.
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