US Prisons Accused
Of 'Stun Belt' Torture
By Amanda Onion
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The latest high-tech device designed to keep the US prison population in line is no better than "torture", according to opponents who want the controversial stun belts banned.
Convicts wearing the belts can be hit by a 50,000-volt charge unleashed from a safe distance of up to 900 metres (yards) by a prison guard equipped with a remote control gun.
The charge runs through the victim for eight seconds, typically sending him sprawling to the ground in agony.
Prisoners wear the belts when they are being transferred or being taken to and from court.
Human rights group Amnesty USA says 30 US states as well as the federal government are using stun belts on their prison population.
Amnesty on Tuesday called for a ban on the use of the belts, which the organization's executive director William Schulz described as "a particularly heinous form of high-tech brutality".
"Event if it is state-of-the-art, it is torture nonetheless," he argued, saying that the belts had been unjustifiably used in several cases.
According to Amnesty, the United States is the only country to permit widespread use of the belts. Indeed the belts are found in only one other country, South Africa, where they are used in one prison in Pretoria.
Proponents of the stun belts overlook the charges of brutality and torture and maintain that the belts offer a far better alternative to the traditional ways of keeping prisoners in line -- beatings or shootings.
"It's an alternative method to control somebody, somebody escaping or attempting to commit an assault," said Dennis Kaufman, president of Stun Tech, the company that makes the belts.
"It is a lot safer to deal with that technology than to have to run and hit him over the head or shoot him."
The belts can also be a powerful disincentive to prisoners who know that one false move will bring a swift and high-voltage blast of agony.
Inmates who wear the belts "are less apt to cause a problem", said Kaufman.
In a report condemning the device, Amnesty says the belts have been worn 50,000 times in the past five years in 130 US state and local jurisdictions.
Handcuffed and with his feet in chains, German Karl LaGrand, a convicted murderer, wore one in February in a vain plea for his life before the Arizona pardons board.
In June 1997, Clark Krueger, 17, wore one when he was doing forced labour outside Fox Lake prison in Wisconsin as a punishment for smoking, Amnesty said.
In June last year, AIDS sufferer Ronnie Hawkins wore one when he appeared in court in Long Beach, California, accused of stealing pain killers. He was knocked to the ground by 50,000 volts when the judge decided he was talking too much.
The belt was launched on the market by Cleveland, Ohio-based Stun Tech in 1991. Since then Kaufman says the firm have sold some 1,800 at 700 dollars each.
Kaufman says he was aware of only 27 cases where the belts have been activated, "with no problem at all".
US federal prisons have bought several dozen and spokesman Dan Dunne says they have never had to be activated.
However, Amnesty says the risk of abuse is serious, and asserts that the belts have been activated in some cases as a punishment, or without reason at all.
"Stun belts invite abuse because they leave few, if any visible, marks," said William Schulz, Amnesty USA's executive director, describing the use of the devices as "emotional torture".