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ODOC to Taser Prisoners

Tasers are coming to the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), and deaths are sure to follow.

ODOC amended its “use of force” rules to authorize the use of fifty-thousand-volt electric stun guns, commonly known as Tasers, and other shock devices on prisoners. Nearly one hundred guards, statewide, are being trained on how and when to use the Tasers.

“The officers are able to quickly subdue the [inmate] versus wrestling with him for some time,” explained ODOC security chief Paula Allen. A supervising officer and superintendent will make judgment calls regarding Taser deployment, according to Allen. “It’s not something that will be deployed on a correctional officer at work in a housing unit or in a recreational yard,” defends Allen. “It’s going to be locked and secured in an arsenal until the need arises for one.”

More than 70 prisoners and civil rights activists submitted written objections to the rule change. “Prisons already have plenty of means to control inmates, and this is an unnecessary, deadly, and expensive weapon,” wrote Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center of Eugene, Oregon. Using Tasers on mentally ill prisoners would amount to cruel and unusual punishment, added Regan. Yet, those are the prisoners most at risk of being Tasered, due to their significantly diminished impulse control. In 2004, ODOC acknowledged that at least 40 percent of its population, or 5,400 prisoners, suffer from severe mental illness, and that many of them receive no mental health treatment. This group will undoubtedly experience disproportionate numbers of Tasering incidents. Those which do not prove fatal will certainly exacerbate their severe mental illness.

ODOC Director and former state senator Max Williams defends the department’s Taser use, saying that “when used properly, medical experts have concluded that Taser technology is among the most effective and safest use-of-force interventions available to law enforcement and corrections officers to halt violent situations that post a safety risk to an inmate and the officer.” Coincidentally, this sounds suspiciously familiar to claims made by the Arizona manufacturer of Tasers. “Extensive medical evidence strongly supports that Taser devices will not cause lasting aftereffects or fatality,” proclaims Taser International literature.

As we’ve previously reported, however, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office demanded that the company provide more accurate produce warnings, to include limiting use of the term “non-lethal” to describe Tasers. The Attorney General found that Taser International’s safety claims “may have understated the risks of serious harm” (PLN, Oct. 2006, pp. 1-8). In December 2005, the company agreed to an 18-point product warning and made changes in its training materials, including: acknowledging the stun gun’s dangerousness; changing the way the company uses the word “safe”; limiting medical safety claims; and deleting statements that Tasers are “harmless.”

Taser International admits that its “less lethal” weapons “could be deadly” when used on people suffering from excited delirium. A June 2005 company bulletin cautioned against repeatedly Tasering such victims. Still, today, the company claims—in the face of 40 lawsuits filed against it in 2005 alone—that its stun guns have never caused a death or serious injury.

We have reported, however, on countless Taser deaths across the nation (See: PLN, Oct. 2006, pp. 1-8, reporting on Taser deaths in CA, CO, FL, GA, IL, IN, MI, NC, OH, SC, TN, TX, and WA. See also: PLN, March 2006, p. 18; PLN, June 2005, p. 1).

We are far from alone in recognizing this deadly trend. A March 2006 Amnesty International report found that there have been 156 deaths following Taser use in the U.S. and Canada since 2001. A recent report of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon found that a 24-year-old college student died in January 2006, after being Tasered by Ashland, Oregon police. The report also found that Ashland police improperly used a Taser five of the six times they’ve deployed the device since 2004.

The Metropolitan Municipalities EMS Medical Director’s Association, representing doctors in emergency medical departments in 30 major cities, recommended in February 2006 that Tasers be used only sparingly, when possible. They acknowledged the “syndrome” of lethality that attends psychologically medicated victims who are shocked. This recommendation followed on the heels of a January 2006 study published in the Journal of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers, which concluded that Tasers produce a charge 39 times more powerful than the manufacturer claims, and severe enough to induce fatal heart rhythms. “These findings place the weapon well into the lethal category,” concluded James Ruggieri, the study’s author.

Even the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where the Army develops and tests weapons, warned that testing Tasers “on Army personnel in training is not recommended, given the potential risk.”

ODOC officials, however, refuse to take pause. They plan to spend up to $36,450 to purchase 20-30 high-tech Tasers equipped with digital cameras, at a cost of $815 each, plus $400 for the camera system. Taser International markets these “Taser-cams” in an ad campaign acknowledging that “The Truth is Undeniable.”

With photographic evidence of ODOC Taser deaths, injuries, and abuses—barring convenient “camera malfunctions,” of course—the truth will definitely be undeniable, and inescapable, for ODOC. We will report on any such deaths and related lawsuits, when, not if, they occur.

Sources: The Oregonian, The Associated Press

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