Use of Stun Belts on Prisoners Growing, Amnesty Int'l Reports

June 8, 1999 12:00 am

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A report to be issued by Amnesty International this morning focuses increasing attention on the use of stun belts on prisoners, The New York Times reports in a front-page story today.

While officials say that the stun devices can often be the least forceful way of maintaining control of a violent prisoner and that they are in fact activated sparingly, critics contend that any use of them is needlessly cruel: one jolt through the wearer’s kidney can cause temporary paralysis and loss of bodily function control.

Their use, the critics say, violates not only the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” but also a number of international human rights agreements to which the United States is a party.

Some advocates for prisoners say the devices amount to a worrisome turn of technology. “In prison settings, it is a clear opening for abuse,” Elizabeth Alexander, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times.

Amnesty International’s report says laws and regulations now permit the use of the belt by corrections systems in 20 states, by local law-enforcement officers in 30 states and by Government agencies including the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The only states where the belt is explicitly prohibited are Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey, although some prison systems, including New York State’s have chosen not to use it.

As a rule, the Times said, Federal and state prisons that authorize use of stun belts say that have strict limits on activation: typically only to prevent escape or assault.

But in a widely reported incident that took place last July, a Los Angeles municipal court judge ordered a bailiff to shock a bound defendant with 50,000 volts of electricity because he was talking too much. The judge’s actions prompted the ACLU of Southern California to call for an immediate and permanent ban on the use of stun belts by county judges or other court personnel as a means of punishing or otherwise restraining non-violent defendants.

Legal experts say the device is too new for the courts to have reached any consensus about it.

In the California case, Ronnie Hawkins of Long Beach, California filed a Federal civil suit seeking damages from officials and an injunction barring the use of the belts. In January, a judge issued a temporary halt on use of the belts while the case awaited trial, but Los Angeles County appealed his ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where the case is pending.

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