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Stunning Revelations

Recently Governor Thompson signed into law a bill permitting prisoner chain gangs in Wisconsin. In a high-tech twist on the old Southern chain gangs, Thompson's program includes requiring prisoners to wear electrical stun belts in addition to being chained at the ankle.

When activated, the stun belt sends a fifty thousand volt charge through the prisoner for eight seconds, totally incapacitating him. The electrical charge often causes prisoners to urinate and defecate on themselves. In other states, use of the stun belts has triggered heart attacks. One of the persistent problems with the stun devices is inadvertent activation. Prison guards supervising prisoner crews have accidentally triggered the belts, shocking prisoners without cause.

The use of these devices is so cruel that Amnesty International is vigorously opposing the practice, decrying the use of stun belts as torture. Michael Heflin, midwest regional director of Amnesty International, spent a week in Madison recently lobbying against the introduction of stun belts in this state's prisons.

As a part of his efforts to educate the public about the cruelty of stun belts, Heflin appeared June 20, 1996, on a talk show aired by Wisconsin Public Radio. I heard on that program the most astonishing argument to date in the stunbelt controversy. A prison guard called the show to argue that the use of stun belts is actually safer for prisoners because, through use of the electronic device, prisoners can be restrained without suffering the broken bones and missing teeth that routinely accompany the traditional practice of disobedient prisoners being manually restrained by a goon squad of guards.

I can attest from experience that beating prisoners into submission is standard procedure for prison guards. It's still jarring, though, to hear a guard himself argue that we need to resort to incapacitating inmates with fifty thousand volt electrical shocks, not because the inmates are dangerous, but because our prison guards are such out of control thugs that they can't be trusted to handle prisoners without resorting to outrageous levels of violence.

As it happens, recent events have demonstrated how completely unnecessary chain gangs are, with or without stun belts. Heavy rainfall the week of June 24th caused flooding throughout the Madison area. Because of its unique geography, the Belle Isle area of Monona is particularly susceptible to high water. The Department of Corrections brought minimum security prisoners from the nearby Oakhill Correctional Institution to assist Belle Isle residents in piling sandbags. There were no chains, no stun belts, no escapes and no incidents. The flood walls got built. Aside from tormenting people, the only real purpose of the chain gangs is to allow cheap-shot politicians like Tommy Thompson to attract votes with endless rhetoric about being tough on prisoners.

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