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Amnesty International Calls for Stun Belt Ban

In 1996 Amnesty International 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;" 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," says AI in its June 1999 report, Cruelty in Control? "The Stun Belt and other Electro-Shock equipment in Law Enforcement."

"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."

Both the 1996 and the 1999 AI 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. The belts have been in use at least since 1993 and are now part of the federal prison system and the U.S. Marshalls' Service. AI lists 112 local jurisdictions in thirty states and the prison facilities of twenty 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.

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 U.S. prison and jail 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 violate international law.

"[T]he 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 ... 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...could make you defecate or urinate,...what would you do?" Stun Tech warns 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] "taser" dart guns, as well as direct-touch stun guns, batons and shields have become...widely...used by law enforcement officers..." They are, according to a U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission report, "non-lethal to normal healthy adults." Deaths have, however, been caused according to a forensic pathologist quoted by AI: "[N]ine 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 depolarizing skeletal muscle can also depolarize heart muscle and cause fibrillation..." The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has found the belt "medically safe," but warns that it "should not be used on pregnant women, persons with heart diseases, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or who are epileptic." The Bureau examines a prisoner "only after [s/he] has become incapacitated."

In April of 1998 Ronald Hawkins, 48, faced sentencing after having been convicted for second degree burglary. He had stolen only $265 worth of goods, but it was his third felony offense and, given California's "three strikes" policy, he faced a sentence of 25 years to life. Acting as his own lawyer he interrupted the judge what she considered to be once too often; she warned that his stun belt would be activated it he persisted. When he replied that such use would be unconstitutional she ordered the bailiff to activate the device. "It was like a stinging in my spine and then a lot of pain in my back. I was paralyzed for about four seconds." Hawkins filed a federal lawsuit. In January of this year a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction banning its use in Los Angeles courtrooms. "He noted that 'the stun belt, even if not activated, has the potential of compromising the defense. 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.'" [see: "Stun Belts in Court Unconstitutional," PLN, September 1999] Los Angeles county has appealed the ruling and AI has stated it will support Hawkins with an amicus brief.

The use of stun technology is banned in some states and Western European countries. 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. "U.S. companies have been marketing ... electro-shock weapons to such countries with the permission of the U.S. government." AI calls on the federal and state governments to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of stun belts.

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 U.S. will act to curb the export of these items. More likely, their use will spread, as it has to Queen Anne's County in Maryland. In April of 1997 the county authorities introduced "chainless" chain gangs. Stun belts replaced the chains. The theory behind their introduction was two-fold: Save the county money by reducing the number of officers needed to supervise work crews, and degrade and stigmatize their wearers. "'Give them public humiliation,' said ...[the] crew leader for a fast-food chain. 'They never think twice about committing a crime.'" Of such attitudes AI remarks "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 U.S. is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article Seven of which states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifies that "cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted." According to the U.N.'s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, "[i]nstruments of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains, irons and straightjackets shall never be applied as punishment. [Restraints may] never be used in a manner ... [as to] cause humiliation or degradation." Just such restraints in the form of handcuffs, chains and now stun belts are widely used by prison authorities in this country. All of them constitute weapons available to the far right in its all out war on the burgeoning "third world" of the poor and people of color in the midst of this, the most affluent nation on earth.

The 1999 report, Cruelty in control? "The Stun Belt and other Electro-Shock equipment in Law Enforcement," is available at a cost of $8.95 plus $3.00 for shipping from Amnesty International Publications, 322 Eighth Avenue, New York, New York 10001. Payment may be made by check, money order or credit card.

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