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Cover story

Use of electro-shock devices increases

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The remote electronically activated control technology (REACT) belt, also known as the stun belt, is among a growing array of electro-shock devices currently being used on American prisoners.

Strapped around the inmate’s waist, the belt delivers an 8-second 50,000-volt charge through electrodes placed near the kidneys, triggered by remote control that can be as far as 300 feet away. The shock can cause involuntary defecation and urination. In the words of one police officer, who submitted to a trial run of the belt, the shock felt as if someone, with “nine inch nails tried to rip my sides out.”

Amnesty International is calling for a ban on the belt and has highlighted its hazards in a 1998 report on U.S. violations of human rights. “Even when not activated,” the report argues, the belt “is inherently cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

Manufactured by Stun Tech, Inc. of Cleveland and Nova Products of Cookeville, Tenn., a belt costs between $700 and $800. It is put on inmates perceived to be a security risk during trial or transportation to court or hospitals.

Amnesty reports that 20 state correctional systems, local jurisdictions in 30 states, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service have authorized use of the belt. It is outlawed in some jurisdictions including Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey.

In its promotional literature, Stun Tech lauds the deterrent value of its product: “After all, if you were wearing a contraption around your waist that by the mere push of a button in someone else’s hand could make you defecate or urinate yourself, what would that do to you from a psychological standpoint?” Nova, a competitor of Stun Tech, touts the “take-down” quality of its electro-shock weapons. Most of the products out on the market, the company’s Web site claims, “will not take a person down. … Nova products are superior because they will take a person down.”

But Amnesty says, “It is both a myth and misleading to argue that the stun belt is required to prevent prisoners from escaping and to prevent attacks.” Outbreaks of prisoners during transport are a “rare problem,” and the traditional methods of restraint, including handcuffs, are “more than adequate” for meeting the security needs of correction officials transporting violent inmates, Amnesty said.

Amnesty’s report cited several heinous examples of the belt’s use: On Ronnie Hawkins in a California courtroom, after his trial judge became irritated by Hawkins’ loud interruptions. On a nonaggressive defendant at a capital trial in Las Vegas, Nev., an officer leaned across a desk and inadvertently set off the remote control switch. The electro-shock sent the defendant sprawling to the floor and caused him to “shake uncontrollably.” The belt was also used on a mentally ill defendant in a Florida courtroom. His lawyers had tried to argue that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Jamie Fellner, an attorney for Human Rights Watch, reports that 10 inmates from Wallens Ridge State Prison, a high security facility in Virginia, were required to wear the belts while she interviewed them. Fellner was investigating inmate allegations concerning the excessive use of firearms by prison personnel, and she found the belts extremely intimidating. “I was so nervous something would happen. What if they sneeze or move?

“The guard had told the inmates that if they stood up or made any moves when they were not told to, they would be stunned,” she said. According to Fellner, the prisoners were required to wear the belts for the duration of the interview, even though they were already handcuffed and shackled.

Amnesty is calling for a suspension of all stun technology -- stun guns, stun belts, stun shields -- until the technology is medically evaluated and proven to be medically safe. Electro-shock devices are dangerous, Amnesty contends, because electrical impulses travel through the nervous system, the path of least resistance, and go directly to the heart and brain.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000