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Stun Gun, Four-Point Restraint Use Curtailed in Virginia Prisons

Because Connecticut's prisons were overfull, Lawrence Frazier was sent to Virginia to serve his time. He didn't go home alive. He died in a Richmond hospital of cardiac arrhythmia after prison guards repeatedly shocked him with an Ultron II stun gun and shackled him to a steel table.

Frazier, 50, was one of about 500 Connecticut prisoners being held under contract in Virginia's notoriously inhumane prisons. In June 2000, Frazier was involved in a disturbance at Wallens Ridge prison. He was subdued by guards using the hand-held Ultron II, a device capable of delivering a 50,000 volt charge. Immediately thereafter, he was fastened to a steel table using five-point restraints. He then lost consciousness and lapsed into a coma. Frazier died 5 days later. The Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) would not disclose how many times Frazier was shocked.

An autopsy found that Frazier died of "natural causes" but left open the possibility that the stun gun and five-point restraints contributed to his death.

A consultant hired by the DOC found, not unexpectedly, that the Ultron II played no role in Frazier's death. Dan Kaufman, speaking on behalf of Electronic Defense Technology, the Cleveland-based manufacturer of the device, said it had "been in use for 12 years and there's not been one death or serious injury attributed to the device."

Nevertheless, Ronald J. Angelone, Director of the DOC, announced last spring that "due to comments contained in the medical examiner's report, the department is issuing a state-wide moratorium on the use of the Ultron II device. This moratorium will remain in effect until issues regarding the device are clarified."

In a separate victory for prisoners, Virginia prison officials capitulated to increasing pressure from District of Columbia (D.C.) convicts who sought to end the use of four-point restraints as punishment.

On behalf of D.C. prisoners who are housed in Virginia's prisons, a lawsuit was filed last August by Covington & Burling, a Washington D.C. law firm, in collaboration with the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project. (See PLN , January 2001, page 17.) The suit, which affects about 1,200 D.C. prisoners who are held in Virginia's Sussex II prison, brought about statewide reform of the procedures for use of restraints.

The lawsuit challenged the practice of using four-point restraints as punishment for petty offenses such as banging on a cell door or yanking on a telephone cord. A prisoner who committed such minor offenses was stripped to his underwear, then shackled to a steel table by his wrists and ankles with additional straps across his chest and thighs. Prisoners were held in this position for as long as 3 consecutive days with breaks at 6 to 8 hour intervals. Prisoners who needed to relieve themselves while restrained would urinate or defecate on themselves.

Under the new policy, restraints can only he used to control a prisoner who presents a threat to himself or others, not as punishment. Further, if a prisoner is placed in restraints, he must be released every 3_1/2 hours to stretch his muscles and use the toilet.

"We are happy that Virginia changed its policy after examining the facts," said Eric Lotke, Executive Director of D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project.

Alan Pemberton, lead counsel for Covington & Burling, said he was pleased the lawsuit helped end the "barbaric and inhumane use of restraints on D.C. inmates shipped to Virginia."

The stipulation governing the substantially reduced use of four-point restraints was signed on behalf of the Attorney General of Virginia and filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia at Richmond. See: Prisoners of Sussex II v. Ronald Angelone et al. , 3:00CV558.

Sources: Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch , Covington & Burling.

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Related legal case

Prisoners of Sussex II v. Angelone