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U.S. Prisons to Study 'Stun Belt' Concerns

Corrections: Officials agree to review objections raised by Amnesty International, which calls electroshock restraint devices high-tech torture.

June 09, 1999|ERIC LICHTBLAU and JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Federal prison officials Tuesday agreed to review civil rights concerns about the use of electroshock "stun belts" as Amnesty International released a report that lambasted the devices as high-technology torture.

Amnesty International said it has found an alarming rise in the use of stun belts in jail and courtroom settings around the country in recent years. Authorities in about 130 federal, state and local jurisdictions now have begun using the belts to control troublesome inmates by threatening to temporarily immobilize them with a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity via remote control, the watchdog group reported.

It said that several notorious episodes--including the case of Long Beach defendant Ronnie Hawkins, who was zapped last year after talking too much in court--warrant an outright ban on the belts.

"Even if it is state of the art, it is torture nonetheless," said Amnesty International Executive Director William F. Schulz at a news conference Tuesday.

Officials of the group maintained that the stun belt could pose long-term medical harm and that it encourages police abuse by inflicting extreme pain "without a trace." Moreover, they said, the Long Beach case and other anecdotal evidence raise serious concerns about whether the belts are used--both intentionally and accidentally--as an inhumane restraint against minorities, the mentally ill, juveniles and other groups.

Although policies vary widely, Amnesty International found that at least 20 state prison systems now authorize stun belts, which first came into use in the U.S. law enforcement community about five years ago.

The California state prison system is not one of those that uses the $700 electroshock belts to restrain its inmates. "We don't even own any," said state corrections spokesman Tip Kindel.

But Amnesty International's survey found that at least 18 counties in California force some disruptive prisoners to wear stun belts while they are being transported or when they appear in court. Only Ohio has more counties that use the device. The belt's principal manufacturer, Stun Tech Inc., is based in Cleveland.

At a meeting last week, Amnesty International officials persuaded the federal Bureau of Prisons to incorporate the group's findings into an annual review of prison restraint policy to be conducted later this year.

Under policy guidelines in the federal system's 94 prisons, maximum-security inmates are made to wear stun belts only in rare cases of extreme risk and no federal prisoner has actually been stunned in five years of use, bureau spokesman Todd Craig said in an interview.

Federal authorities believe that the strict controls justify the belts' use, he said.

"Obviously we're aware of Amnesty International's concerns and we will take their report seriously" in conducting the bureau's periodic review of the restraint policy, Craig said. "If warranted, we'll take appropriate action, but at this [time] we plan to continue its use."

Stun Tech President Dennis Kaufman said that he is not worried about pressure to restrict the use of electroshock devices because he believes authorities--and the public--understand their safety record and effectiveness.

"If Amnesty International would rather have officers beat someone over the head or shoot them when they try to escape, that's the alternative," he said.

Kaufman said that his firm's stun-belt business is increasing at a rate of about 20% a year and that Amnesty International's research on the increased popularity of the belts appears solid. Reports from his customers indicate that the belts have been worn by inmates about 55,000 times in the last few years.

Stun belts have been placed on Los Angeles County inmates about 1,050 times since the Sheriff's Department introduced the device in 1994, according to the county.

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Lichtblau reported from Washington and Leonard from Orange County.

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