The Guardian July 28, 1999

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 

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 

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People's Weekly World

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