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Corrections Cowboys get a Charge out of their New Sci-Fi Weapons
Introducing the penal industry’s latest toy: It’s called a stun belt. An electronic shocking device secured to a person’s waist, it is the hot new item in corrections gear. Guards love it because they don’t have to get near prisoners who wear the belt. They can set off the eight-second, 50,000-volt stun from as far away as 300 feet.
The manufacturer of the device is Stun Tech, a company based in Cleveland, Ohio. It claims that the R.E.A.C.T. (Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology) belt is “100 percent non-lethal.” Sales have been booming since 1994, when the federal Bureau of Prisons decided to use the belt in medium- and high-security lockups. Since then, the U.S. Marshals Service and more than 100 county agencies have employed the belt for prisoner transport, courtroom appearances, and medical appointments. Sixteen state correctional agencies currently use the belt. Seven more are considering it.
But human-rights groups are aghast. “The stun belt looks to be a weapon which will almost certainly result in cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” a violation of international law, says Brian Wood of Amnesty International, which will launch an international campaign against electronic stun devices this summer. The use of the stun belt in U.S. prisons “will inevitably encourage prison authorities—including those in torturing states—to do likewise,” says Wood, who believes the chances are very high that the belt will eventually be used for torture.
Stun Tech’s promotional materials recommend the belt as a psychological tool, an effective deterrent for potentially unruly inmates, and a humane alternative to guns or nightsticks.
The Stun Tech R.E.A.C.T. belt is available in two styles: a one-size-fits-all minimal-security belt (a slim version designed for low visibility in courts), and the high-security transport belt, complete with wrist restraints. Both come attached to a nine-volt battery. When activated, the stun belt shocks its wearer for eight seconds, with three to four milliamps, and 50,000 volts of “continuous stun power.” The painful blast, which Stun Tech representatives advertise as “devastating,” knocks most of its victims to the floor, where they may shake uncontrollably and remain incapacitated for as long as fifteen minutes. Two metal prongs, positioned just above the left kidney, leave welts that can take up to six months to heal.
According to two physicians, and a 1990 study by the British Forensic Service, electronic devices similar to the belt may cause heart attack, ventricular fibrillation, or arhythmia, and may set off an adverse reaction in people with epilepsy or on psychotropic medications.
Stun Tech denies that its belt could cause fatalities. But the recent death of a Texas corrections officer, who suffered a heart attack shortly after receiving a shock from an electric shield similar in design to the stun belt, raises serious questions about the belt’s safety.
Like many other Texas corrections workers, Harry Landis was in training to use the electric riot shield. Like the stun belt, the taser, and the stun gun, the shield is an electronic shocking device. Guards frequently use the shield when removing prisoners from their cells. But on December 1, 1995, something went terribly wrong. As part of the training, Landis was required to endure two 45,000-volt shocks. Shortly after the second shock, Landis collapsed and died.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which had used the shields to subdue prisoners since September 1995, immediately suspended their use. Meanwhile, John McDermit, president of Nova Products, Inc., the maker of the shield, denied that it had killed Landis. “We’re very sorry this happened,” McDermit said. “But there certainly was no connection between his training and his death.”
But Jimmy Wood, the Coryell County justice of the peace who conducted an inquiry into Landis’s death, has a different story to tell. “Landis was in fairly decent shape as far as physical appearance is concerned,” he says. “He did have a history of heart problems. But was he going to die this day if he didn’t experience an electric shock? No, he wasn’t.”
According to Jimmy Wood, Landis’s autopsy showed that he died as a result of cardiac dirhythmia due to coronary blockage following electric shock by an electronic stun shield. “The electric shock threw his heart into a different rhythmic beat, causing him to pass away,” he says.
“The shield worked as it was intended to,” says Mark Goodson, an engineer who conducted tests on the shield following Landis’s death. “Now comes the problem. The manufacturer puts in its literature that the shield will not hurt anyone, including people with a heart condition. But they have not done studies on people with heart conditions. They haven’t done studies on people at all. They conducted their tests on animals—anesthetized animals. Do you see the danger here? In one word: adrenaline.”
Goodson explains that this is a problem with all pulsed electrical stun technology. “No one can even define a safe voltage,” he says. “We don’t even have an idea if it is safe or not for the general population.”
McDermit continues to believe that Landis’s death was mere coincidence. “We think that just happened to be a timing problem,” he says.
The stun belt and its relatives are supposed to be nonlethal or, at the very least, less-lethal. At the Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Conference in Los Angeles, I talk to less-lethal weapons manufacturers, representatives of the National Institute of Justice, officials of the Rome and Phillips laboratories, and executives of correctional facilities. They are all quite proud of the newest “less-lethal” technologies. They tell me about products already on the market: mace, pepper spray, beanbag bullets, rubber bullets, plastic bullets, and the stun belt. They also let me in on some new ideas: a cannon-like instrument that shoots a sticky net, disorienting lights, sounds that cause nausea, sticky foam, aqueous foam “doped with pepper spray,” and a gun that heats its victim’s body up to 107 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many of these devices inflict significant pain. Some are potentially deadly (sticky foam, for instance, can seal a person’s lungs; the sticky net, shot at close range, has knocked the head off of many a dummy).
Michael Keith, president of MK Ballistic Systems, maker of the beanbag bullet (coarse material stuffed with lead shot), explains how such products develop: “All technology starts low-tech,” he says. His own beanbag bullet had to go through some adjustments when corrections officials discovered that, at close range, it punctured bodies. Now corrections personnel shoot from farther away. The stun belt, Keith adds, is “just a modified dog collar.”
Though his work is in beanbag bullets, not stun technology, Keith has many ideas for improving the belt. He would install a tracking device and a timer, and make the belt impossible for the wearer to remove. An inmate who got away would get a jolt every thirty seconds or so until he was “in need of serious medical attention,” Keith says. “The guy would be frog-jumping in the backseat. I wouldn’t say it should kill him. That wouldn’t go over in our society.”
The sponsor of the Los Angeles conference is the American Defense Preparedness Association. It publishes National Defense magazine, and organizes many other conferences with such titles as “Enhancing the Individual Warrior,” “Undersea Warfare,” and “Bomb and Warhead.”
Conference participants thrill to the idea of combating “internal enemies.” “I don’t think our defense against an internal enemy is any different from a defense against an external enemy that might be threatening our borders,” says Sherman Block, sheriff of Los Angeles County.
During conference break-out sessions, we watch film clips from Star Trek, RoboCop, Star Wars, Gunsmoke, and Clint Eastwood westerns. “The police firearm is more reminiscent of Wyatt Earp than it is of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. We do indeed have a technology gap,” says Alan Bersin, the conference chairman.
To cover the gap, the industry stresses the importance of manipulating the American public’s fear of crime. “Think about the public’s concern about crime and translate that concern into a national agenda—into new solutions, new technologies,” says Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice. “How can we build a public demand, and marry that demand to production?”
Stun Tech’s advertising material asserts that “merely wearing the belt is not a violation of civil rights. As long as it is not used for officer gratification or punishment, liability is non-existent.”
Leaving aside the issue of “officer gratification,” the belt seems popular precisely for its punishment potential. And it is
being used even before defendants are proven guilty.
In December 1994, Bruce Sons was on trial for the murder of a California highway patrol officer. Sons was forced to wear a stun belt. The belt went off accidentally, shocking Sons. His attorney, Troy Childers, requested that the belt be removed. The judge denied Childers’s request, demanding that Sons wear the belt until he testified.
In April 1995, James Oswald stood trial for robbery and the murder of a Wisconsin police officer. The Waukesha, Wisconsin, court system required Oswald to wear the stun belt. Oswald’s attorney, Alan Eisenberg, objected.
“I was worried that they would accidentally stun him into the middle of next week—which proved to be a true prediction,” says Eisenberg. “I argued that it was a Nazi torture device.” Oswald, who appeared in court in a wheelchair throughout his trial, was, according to Eisenberg, unable to walk and unable to run. The court, not convinced that Oswald’s disabilities were real, required both shackles and the stun belt.
Authorities acknowledge that the belt was accidentally set off once, shocking Oswald. Oswald claims he was stunned twice, and was being tortured. Eisenberg believes that the court’s insistence that
Oswald wear the belt “was part of a multiphase effort to torture this guy. Many of the people who had responsibility for him were friends of the deceased. It was like a chicken in a fox coop.”
When I ask Stun Tech president Dennis Kaufman to send me a copy of Stun Tech’s promotional video for the R.E.A.C.T. belt, he warns me that many viewers find the footage graphic. “There are about thirty people jumping around like Mexican jumping beans,” he says.
Kaufman is right: The video is graphic. But it only shows law-enforcement and corrections officers wearing the belt. All have been warned and given time to prepare themselves psychologically before the shock. During the eight-second blast, all are clearly in pain.
The officers in the Stun Tech video fall onto gym mats, or outside onto grass. One guard, panicked by the shock, dives headlong into a portable movie screen and a metal cart. “Watch his head,” yells an off-camera voice.
I call Kaufman several days later to check some facts. He asks me if I have received the video. “It makes great party viewing,” he says.
Advertising brochures for the R.E.A.C.T. belt come accompanied by an affidavit signed by a single medical doctor, Robert Stratbucker of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Stratbucker conducted a series of safety tests using the Stun Tech Ultron II—a stun gun—a version of which forms the shock component to the R.E.A.C.T. belt. Stratbucker conducted his tests on anesthetized swine.
An anesthetized pig is very different from a human being in dread of electrocution. In their own way, the Stun Tech representatives acknowledge this. Jim Kronke, a Stun Tech distributor and trainer, calls the belt’s effect on prisoners “very psychological,” adding that, “at trials, people notice that the defendant will be watching whoever has the monitor.” He points out that the belt has never caused anyone to defecate or killed anyone. “If it ever kills anyone,” says Kronke, “I think it’s going to be from fright.”
Kaufman also blames fear for any potential physical danger. “We don’t recommend that it be placed on anyone who has a heart condition. The reason is that, if they have to wear it for eight hours, there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety. The fear will elevate blood pressure as much as the shock will.” But, he adds, “the technology we are using is not capable of causing a heart attack.”
A 1990 study by the British Forensic Science Service came to some rather different conclusions. The British scientists found that high-voltage, high-peak, short-duration pulses, such as those which the stun belt inflicts, are dangerous. The study describes stun devices as “capable of causing temporary incapacitation of the whole body: a body-widespread immobilizing effect.” A one- to two-second shock, said the scientists, would probably cause the victim to collapse. A three- to four-second shock would have an incapacitating effect on the entire body for up to fifteen minutes. Since the shock is distributed via electric currents throughout the entire body, including the brain, the chest region, and the central nervous system, the researchers concluded that “anyone in contact with the victim’s body at the time of shocking was also likely to receive a shock,” and that they “could not discount the possibility of ventricular fibrillation.” This is to say that a stun device could potentially kill someone.
Although Stun Tech advises guards not to use the belt on inmates with a known heart condition, this precaution hardly eliminates all potential dangers. For one thing, some at-risk hearts appear healthy. “You shock someone with 50,000 volts of electricity and that person has some unrecognized congenital problem or conduction mechanism in their heart, and you put them at great risk for arhythmia,” says Armand Start, a medical doctor who runs the National Center for Correctional Healthcare Studies. “You can’t predict this. You can’t determine the conduction mechanism in a heart. Arhythmia mostly happens in healthy hearts.”
Corey Weinstein, a physician and co-director of the Pelican Bay Information Project (which monitors human-rights abuses at Pelican Bay prison in California), says that stun belts “have the same problems as tasers. With tasers, people on psych meds have altered neurological responses. People with seizures have real problems.”
Start questions Stun Tech’s claims that the belt is medically safe. When he served as medical director of the Texas state prison system, stun guns, closely related to the belts, were being employed. The state eventually stopped using them. “Having dealt with the stun gun, I know that that was implemented without a good medical evaluation. If corrections is true to form, they have implemented this the same way. Show me a refereed study on this thing.”
Kaufman says an independent, refereed medical study has never been conducted on the R.E.A.C.T. belt.
The stun belt’s popularity is linked to the return of the chain gang. States like Wisconsin that are putting prisoners back on the chain gang plan to use the belt to keep them in line.
A new law in Wisconsin assigns twelve-person teams of prisoners to outside work, clearing brush and trash. The teams will wear the R.E.A.C.T. stun belt in addition to leg shackles. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections suggested the belt as a “humane” alternative to chaining prisoners together.
Wisconsin may be the first in line, but it is not likely to be the only state with stun-belted work crews. Kaufman says that the company has already talked with Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana about adapting the stun belt to their chain gangs. “Everyone going back to chain gangs is looking at this,” says Kaufman.
Until Wisconsin came up with the idea of stun-belting the chain gangs, most wearers of the belt were people charged with violent offenses, people whom police and correctional officers, or court officials, considered security risks. But under the new Wisconsin provision, this is likely to change. Inmates who are considered escape risks or who are deemed dangerous to the public are usually kept off the chain gangs. Chain-gang members who wear the stun belt will actually be the least dangerous of prisoners.
Justification for the work crews follows the same line of thinking in Wisconsin as it does in other states. “We have a tremendous idleness problem in our medium- and maximum-security prisons,” says Bob Margolies, legislative liaison for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. “Many of our prisoners want work.”
Ken Morgan, warden at the Racine Correctional Institution, where the first stun-belt-wearing work crews could start as early as January 1997, agrees that there is an idleness problem. “But it is primarily due to overcrowding,” he says.
On the morning when I visit the Racine prison, Morgan informs me that the day’s population is 1,297—377 over capacity. “The overcrowding has extended all feeding periods,” he says, and doubling inmates in cramped, one-person rooms is common practice. “We have numbers, as you can see, sleeping on the floor. It’s almost physically impossible to put bunks in some of these rooms.” Morgan holds the door as I peer into a narrow, darkened room where an inmate lies motionless on a small cot, a sheet pulled over his head. As a result of this overcrowding, he says, it’s impossible to keep everyone busy, though most of the inmates work at food or janitorial service or groundskeeping within the fence. About 400 inmates are currently unoccupied.
Morgan’s attitude toward the stun-belted work crews is more resigned than enthusiastic: “It’s like anything else. We will make it work if it comes into effect. As we increase population-wise, we’re going to have to rely more and more on technology.”
But is this the technology U.S. prisons should be relying on?
Some correctional officers wonder about the belt’s real purpose, particularly when it is combined with chain gangs.
Chase Rieveland, former assistant secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, who is now serving as secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, sees the belted work crews as a “symbolic statement,” designed to give the public an illusion of increased safety. “The thing that concerns me most is the public image that is left out there that says this is going to fix something, stop crime and violence. I guess I don’t believe that. The question becomes, how far do we go in brutalization?”
Robert Ganger, the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, sees the new work crews as “part and parcel of the excessive practices that we’ve been engaged with all around the country. The brunt of it falls on unpopular groups like prisoners, so people don’t react. They just shrug.”
For Ganger, stun belts, like the chain gangs themselves, are a gimmick. “If you engage in sane correctional practice, you can set up totally secure work crews without any of the theatrical accouterments that are unneeded. They’re like fluff. It’s a form of political show business. Politicians are more interested in their standing in the polls than in good correctional practice.”
Under the conditions for the new Wisconsin work crews, two guards will supervise twelve inmates. Each guard will monitor six inmates, all connected via the belt to the same radio frequency. According to Wisconsin State Representative Tammy Baldwin, this means that “there is a lot of potential for stunning the wrong person, or stunning all. If there’s an attempted escape or an attack on the guard, that’s going to be a split-second decision.”
The belt may affect prisoners assigned to work crews differently than it does someone who has not recently undergone strenuous physical activity. “People who are out in the sun, sweating, with dehydration and electrolyte imbalances—those people are also at risk,” says Start.
Moreover, once the R.E.A.C.T. belt goes off, there is no stopping it. Although a blast of between one and three seconds is enough to paralyze almost anyone temporarily, the manufacturer set the timer at eight seconds in order to account for differences in bodily resistance to the belt, explains Kronke, the Stun Tech trainer. Even if, as often happens, the belt knocks its wearer to the floor after a half-second, the wearer must endure the entire eight-second stun. And the R.E.A.C.T. belt is not equipped with a switch that would allow a guard to end an unintentional activation.
If this is disturbing, Stun Tech’s record for accidental activations is even more so. In the few years that the R.E.A.C.T. belt has been on the market, unintentional activations have matched intentional activations—nine times each, according to Stun Tech president Kaufman. Nevertheless, Stun Tech advertises that every activation has been “100 percent successful.”
Kaufman maintains that the chances of a false activation (the result of an interfering radio signal) are “one in twenty-nine million,” and suggests that documented accidents are the result of operator error. “Let me put it to you this way,” he says. “Every time a plane crashes they blame the plane, not the pilot. And it’s usually the pilot’s fault.” Several months ago, the company began installing a switch guard on all its belts. Kaufman says that this should put an end to unintentional activations.
Still, even Kronke has his doubts about the accidental activations. After James Oswald received an unintended jolt, the Waukesha, Wisconsin, court called Kronke in as an adviser. The belt must have been set off by an interfering radio signal, he says. “I don’t know what else it could have been.”
As the stun belt catches on nationally, it may become an attractive export. And that has Amnesty International worried. Acts of torture and severe ill-treatment using new electronic devices have been reported in at least fourteen countries, says Brian Wood of Amnesty.
Although the stun belt has not yet been sold abroad, Amnesty has expressed concern about the use of such electroshock weapons for torture. Amnesty has had records of torture with low-voltage cattle prods since the 1970s, but these new varieties of electronic devices—the taser, the stun gun, the electroshock baton, the electric riot shield, and the stun belt—function at a significantly higher voltage than the older variety. According to the British Forensic Science Service study, they are more severe by nearly two orders of magnitude.
Amnesty, the Omega Foundation, and the Journal of the American Medical Association all suggest that the number of “push-button” torture cases is on the rise. Torturers favor the new devices because they are easy to use, and tend not to leave obvious or lasting marks. Countries with records of electrical torture sometimes attempt to obtain samples of these devices in order to manufacture their own, according to an Omega Foundation report.
Amnesty now has cases of torturers shocking children, as well as men and women, with hand-held, high-voltage devices in the most sensitive areas of the human body: “behind their ears, on their necks, in their mouths, in their reproductive organs and rectums.” Torturers have been known to give multiple blasts and to run devices continuously over their victims’ bodies. People who have undergone this kind of torture have reported intense pain, muscle contractions, lost bowel control, vomiting, and urination.
Although the physical evidence of electrical torture may eventually disappear, the real trauma is psychological—the experience of being shocked into incapacitation and severe pain again and again. “Post-traumatic-stress syndrome describes the reaction to electrical injury as well as to other forms of torture,” says Douglas Shenson, director of the Human Rights Clinic at Montefiore Hospital and North Central Bronx Hospital. Shenson claims that 11 percent of the patients he sees at the Human Rights Clinic report electrical torture. The way electrical torture is used, says Shenson, “is often to inflict maximal pain. The electrodes are often applied to the most sensitive parts of the body. That includes the genitals.” Patients who have endured this form of torture report lingering psychological symptoms, “anything from depression to loss of appetite.”
The stun belt would make an ideal torture weapon, Amnesty fears. The operator does not have to have physical contact with the victim in order to cause pain (manufacturers of a newer version, the R.A.C.C. belt, advertise its ability to shock from as far as 600 feet away). Although Stun Tech limits the R.E.A.C.T. belt’s blast to eight seconds, “that doesn’t help a prisoner whose torturer may be setting [the belt] off again and again,” says Wood. The belt can be set off repeatedly, with only a one-second delay between shocks. The medical affidavit, which accompanies advertising materials on the R.E.A.C.T. belt, and supposedly proves its safety, discusses only a single application of the stun.
Stun Tech’s Kaufman is eager to begin marketing the belt to other countries. “Many nations have shown interest,” says Kaufman. Stun Tech already sells its device, Ultron II, abroad.
Would Stun Tech willingly market the stun belt to prison facilities in China, Mexico, or Saudi Arabia—three countries known for their human-rights abuses? Yes, says Kaufman, “We can deal with certain countries under the Free Trade Agreement without a problem.” I ask if Stun Tech conducts research on the prison systems of the countries it ships to. Kaufman tells me it does not.
Many countries tend to look to the United States to set standards. When the U.S. Bureau of Prisons officially adopts an instrument like the stun belt, “the danger is that this belt—like other U.S. stun technology—will find its way onto the international market and into the hands of dedicated torturers,” says Amnesty’s Wood.
At nine in the evening, I arrive at the Outagamie County jail in Appleton, Wisconsin, and press the rear-door buzzer. A voice comes over the loudspeaker, requesting my name. The door unlatches. I enter the bright hallway. No one appears to greet me, and I am slightly disoriented, but have little choice in direction—there are no turnoffs or stray passages here. I round a corner and come face to face with a large elevator door, which immediately opens.
Upstairs, I meet Jim Kronke, the Stun Tech trainer. He leads me into a large, glassed-in office, where several stun devices lie carefully arranged on a table. I ask if one of the devices is a stun gun.
“I don’t call this a stun gun,” says Kronke. “I call it an electric restraining device. If someone calls it a stun gun, I hand it over to the officer and say, ‘Please stun yourself with this.’ ”
He holds the stun device up in the air and presses a button. The device crackles, and a miniature bolt of lightning leaps between the two metal prongs at its tip. The muscles in my stomach clench.
One of the requirements for the eight-hour course necessary for officers who carry stun devices, explains Kronke, is that “you have to stun yourself.” Officers in his training courses generally stun themselves in the large thigh muscle—not the place, it occurs to me, where an officer is likely to shock a disobedient inmate. Because of the body’s reflex reaction to electrical shock, the stun generally lasts less than half a second—that is, less than the average shock needed to “take someone down,” and much less than the stun belt’s eight-second discharge.
An eight-second stun is not required for officers undergoing the six-hour training for the stun belt. However, many officers, Kronke assures me, elect to try it.
I ask if the shock from the stun belt hurts. Yes, he says. “It does a number on you. It feels like two needles. And it will leave some pretty severe marks.”
He describes the time when he allowed himself to be shocked with the belt. He had built up a tolerance to electricity by taking “hits” with the electronic restraining device. He prepared himself psychologically to withstand the belt. “I had it all planned out. I was going to count ‘one thousand one, one thousand two.’ I never heard the beep. I was down on my back, spinning around. It was devastating. It hurt tremendously.” He tells me the welts on his back took two months to heal.
Despite the pain involved, some officers seem to take pleasure in attempting to defy the belt. As I sit talking with Kronke, a second officer walks in. He, like Kronke, is a big man, larger than many prisoners. “I’d like to try it sometime to see if I could outlast it,” he says.
Kronke describes officers at the Appleton facility who bet each other Mountain Dews, claiming that they will be able to remain standing the entire eight seconds of the shock—a very rare feat. For those who do undergo the belt, Kronke offers pocket calculators and T-shirts. He tells me the other officers have nicknamed him “Fifty,” for 50,000 volts.
When I ask Kronke if he will allow me to try the stun belt, he turns grave. “You would not want to wear this belt,” he says. “I would not recommend it.”
So I ask if I can shock myself with the stun gun. Kronke has me sit in a chair, press the prongs against my leg, look up at him, and pull the trigger. I feel a powerful smack and am immediately fatigued. My arm and leg jump apart in reflex. Kronke informs me that I have shocked myself for “much less than half a second.”
When I ask Stun Tech’s president to send me a promotional video for the belt, he warns me that many viewers find the footage graphic. ‘There are about thirty people jumping around like Mexican jumping beans.’
For officers who test out the belt, a Stun Tech trainer offers pocket calculators and T-shirts. He tells me the other officers have nicknamed him ‘Fifty,’ for 50,000 volts.