Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Lethal Prison Electric Fences May Violate International Law

by Matt Clarke

A solicitation of bids last Novem-­​­ber to refurbish a “non-lethal/lethal” electric fence surrounding a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) prison in Tucson, Arizona, resulted in three offers between $3.3 million and $3.8 million and some questions over whether the electric fences comport with international law.

The trend toward installing potentially lethal electric fences around prisons started in the 1990s as a cost-cutting measure. California installed its first of 25 lethal electric prison fences at the Calipatria State Prison in 1993. The lethal Calipatria fence delivers 500 amperes at 4,000 volts.

The fences were installed not because of a problem with escapes — which dropped by 84% between 1972 and 1991. Rather, the issue was saving an estimated $42 million annually by eliminating tower guards.

Ironically, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union for California prison guards, supported the legislation that authorized the electric fences. The union later changed its mind after numerous guard positions were cut. Nonetheless, the fences were installed at 25 of California’s 33 prisons.

Massachusetts and Indiana installed electric fences before California. Alabama, Arkansas, Nevada, and Missouri have used electric prison fencing for decades.

The BOP began an electric fence program for at least seven of its prisons in 2006, adopting the “non-lethal/lethal” variety of electric fences in which the first contact with the fence delivers a non-lethal electric shock, but a second contact results in a lethal shock at two to three times the voltage used in electric chair executions.

And counties can lease electric fences for their jails. Following the escape of a minimum security prisoner who cut a hole in the tent-like material of his cellblock and scaled a fence in 2015, Greene County, Pennsylvania, decided to lease an electric fence from the Electric Guard Dog Company of Columbia, South Carolina, at a cost of $975 a month.

“The yearly costs for the fence will be $11,700,” said Warden Harry Gillisipe. “The cost of just one officer, with salary and benefits, would be $36,000 a year.”

Therein lies the fact and fallacy of electric fences, preventing escapes is often the rationalization used to erect them, but reducing employees is the reality after they are installed.

One issue with electric fences is at times they fail. If the guards who monitor the perimeter are replaced by electric fencing, who will watch the perimeter when the electric fence is down? This is not a theoretical question as internal documents from the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri, showed one zone of the electric fence was offline May through July of 2018. Prisoner unrest in May 2018 caused massive damage at Crossroads.

There also is the question of whether lethal electric fences violate international law.

“Under international law, guards standing on towers — or any automated system — must weigh whether or not the use of lethal force is strictly necessary,” said Human Rights Watch U.S. Programs director Alison Leal Parker, who asserted that “the use of lethal force under state and federal law in the U.S. contradicts international human rights law.”

“There are times when technology can be rights-respecting and even rights-protecting in a way that human decision-making may be flawed,” Parker added. “But there are also many, many instances — and I would argue that this is one — where the need to assess whether killing someone is strictly necessary cannot be done by an automated fence.”

“The issue has never really reached the Supreme Court,” said Nila Bala, an associate director for criminal justice and civil liberties at the public policy research nonprofit R Street. “The Eighth Amendment is what they would look at to see if [the electric fences] are legal. The law is fairly deferential about what happens in correctional facilities.”

That means that a legal challenge to lethal electric fences would likely be determined by whether the court believes it constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment, not whether it clearly violates international human rights law.

A final issue with lethal electric fences is the toll on wildlife. In the first five years of California’s electric fence program, about 3,000 migrating birds were electrocuted. This included 144 burrowing owls, 111 loggerhead shrikes, and 10 red-tailed hawks. The most likely avenue for a successful legal challenge would be on behalf of any endangered or threatened species of animals killed by the fences.

Alternatives to lethal electric fences are readily available. One is non-lethal electric fences that deliver a shock sufficient to deter or even incapacitate, but not kill a potential escapee. Another is sensor fencing that alerts guards to intrusions near to or upon the fence. This allows a human to determine the appropriate response to the intrusion. 



As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login