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Michigan Introduces Tasers to Prison System

by David M. Reutter

Citing hopes of reducing the number of work-related injuries and associated costs resulting from altercations with prisoners, in December 2011 the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) invested $125,000 in a pilot program at five maximum-security prisons to test the effectiveness of Tasers.

MDOC guards at Algier Correctional Facility, the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia and the Ionia, Carson City and St. Louis correctional facilities were armed with a Taser model X26 or X2, both of which have video recording capabilities.

High numbers of assaults involving multiple prisoners, prisoner-on-staff assaults and prisoners with weapons were why the five facilities were selected for the pilot program, said MDOC operations administrator Edward Mize. He noted that other states that allow guards to carry Tasers have reported a 20-50% reduction in employee or prisoner injuries related to altercations.

Each Taser costs around $1,070 and each prison requires about 20, Mize said. In addition to the $107,000 to purchase the electroshock devices, the MDOC spent another $18,000 in equipment and training for five to ten guards at each facility to carry Tasers.

The MDOC has a phone service fund for revenue generated from phone calls made by prisoners. Since the fund is to be used for security equipment, prisoners and their loved ones may end up footing the bill to deploy Tasers within the MDOC.

“We certainly would evaluate if that is something appropriate to use those funds, yes,” stated Mize, who also said the initial Taser purchase was not made using any money from the fund.

Guards will be authorized to use a Taser when lesser force is inadequate to stop prisoners who are assaulting another prisoner or staff member. “If nothing else, verbal commands and the warning [then] a Taser will be deployed will stop some of the aggression in several situations,” Mize stated. “They work very well.”

However, there have been numerous reported deaths involving the use of Tasers against both prisoners and non-prisoners. [See, e.g.: PLN, March 2012, p.46; Jan. 2012, p.42]. And in April 2012, a report published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation confirmed that Tasers could trigger heart attacks.

Given the propensity of guards to abuse their power and engage in excessive use of force, it is only a matter of time before there is an incident involving the unjustified deployment of a Taser by MDOC staff against a prisoner.

That was the topic of a letter sent to Director Heyns from the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC – the parent organization of Prison Legal News) on February 24, 2012.
The letter noted that PLN “has reported on the use of Tasers in the correctional setting for over two decades. We have, for example, reported cases in which pregnant prisoners miscarried after being Tasered; where prisoners were Tasered while restrained in handcuffs or restraint chairs; and where Tasers were used sadistically for the purpose of inflicting pain rather than being used to regain control or respond to incidents involving violence or the threat of violence.”

HRDC director Paul Wright noted, “Of particular concern is the deployment of Tasers against prisoners who are mentally ill, whose unruly behavior and inability to follow prison rules is a result of their mental health condition.” Further, MDOC employees “do not need another tool that causes pain in order to gain compliance, such as Tasers, but there rather needs to be a systemic change in the manner in which DOC staff members interact with prisoners – particularly those who are mentally ill.”

The letter concluded, “We submit that a better use of resources for the Michigan DOC would be training DOC employees in proper techniques for responding to disturbances and incidents involving prisoners with mental health conditions, so as to minimize the use of force – rather than deploying Tasers, which simply adds another type of force to the DOC’s arsenal that has the potential for abuse. The only way to ensure Tasers are not used in an abusive manner against prisoners is to ensure they are not made available to DOC employees.”

Director Heyns did not respond to the HRDC letter. Rather, according to a March 2012 press release from Taser International, the MDOC deemed the pilot program a great success and placed an order for 242 Taser X2s with video recorders, plus 3,783 Taser cartridges, at a cost of around $800,000.

“The recent implementation of the Taser X2s in the Michigan Department of Corrections, although recent, has shown a huge decrease in staff and prisoner injuries,” said Mize. “We have every intention of utilizing them in the majority of our facilities to help control combative and aggressive prisoners.”

Sources:, Taser press release, HRDC letter dated Feb. 24, 2012

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