- June 8 - The increasing use of the electro-shock stun belt and other stun weapons
in the USA is ratcheting up the level of cruelty tolerated in the country's response
to crime, Amnesty International said today, launching a new report.
"As the number of inmates
in US prisons and jails continues to spiral, the threat of severe electro-shock
to control their behaviour is becoming commonplace," Amnesty International said,
"The stun belt is also increasingly bringing cruelty into courtrooms across the
report includes recent allegations of torture and ill-treatment with such weapons
in local jails, state prisons and private facilities.
"Electricity has been one
of the torturer's favoured tools in the second half of the 20th century," Amnesty
International said. "The USA's growing use of high-tech stun weapons dangerously
blurs the line between torture and legitimate prisoner control techniques."
The report names more than
130 US jurisdictions believed to have the stun belt, a device which can subject
its wearer to an eight-second 50,000 volt electric shock by remote control. It
is mainly used on inmates perceived to be a security risk during trial or transportation.
The stun belt is one weapon
among a growing array of electro-shock devices used by police and prison agencies
across the USA. Others devices include the stun gun, stun shield and taser. The
latter, which gained global notoriety in the 1991 Rodney King beating, transmits
an electric shock to its human target via barb-tipped wires.
"Among electro-shock weapons,
the use of the stun belt, even when not activated, violates international human
rights law," Amnesty International stressed.
The belt caused an international
outcry in 1998 when Californian defendant Ronnie Hawkins was electro-shocked in
open court for repeatedly interrupting the judge. His subsequent lawsuit led to
a federal court ban on the belt in Los Angeles County. The county's appeal against
this ban will be heard in court in late June.
Since Amnesty International
wrote its report, the federal government, itself a big stun belt user, has filed
a special petition - an amicus curiae brief - supporting Los Angeles County in
its efforts to overturn the ban. Amnesty International will present its own amicus
to the court.
"The stun belt is a weapon
that is worn by its victim," Amnesty International explained. "To be effective,
it relies on the wearer's fear of the severe pain and humiliation that could follow
activation. Such fear is a leading component of the mental suffering of a victim
of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is banned under international
US government ignores international standards in its amicus brief, and argues
instead that the stun belt meets its own domestic criteria. It contends that the
belt has been activated on thousands of officers, does not cause "excruciating
pain", and is medically safe, pointing to promotional material issued by the main
manufacturer, Stun Tech.
"As part of their training
in the use of the Stun Tech belt, officers can volunteer to receive a shock from
it," Amnesty International said. "They wear it for a few minutes, and are able
to prepare for the shock. That cannot be compared to a prisoner being forced to
wear a belt, often for hours at a time, never knowing if it might be activated,
deliberately or by accident."
Amnesty International points
out that Stun Tech video footage of officers receiving electro-shocks dispels
the myth that the stun belt does not cause severe pain, adding that the company's
claims for the safety of stun weapons stem from tests conducted on anaesthetized
Proponents of the stun
belt, including the federal government, say that it is worn only by the highest
risk inmates, and is an effective way to prevent escape or acts of violence.
"Effectiveness must not
be the only criterion," argues Amnesty International. "If a company invented a
vest of razor wire, which could be made to automatically tighten on its wearer,
and promoted it as an "effective" way to restrain prisoners, would we sanction
its use? No, because international standards demand that humanity be a part of
Furthermore, evidence is
emerging that use of the stun belt is not being reserved for maximum security
inmates, but that it is becoming more routine in some jurisdictions. Amnesty International
cites the use of stun belts during the transportation to hospital of low and medium
security prisoners held in a special segregation unit in New Orleans.
"Given that the prisoners
are held in this unit because of their HIV status," said Amnesty International,
"it appears that they are being arbitrarily subjected to the stun belt because
of their medical condition and not their security status." The stun belt is also
used on medium security prison work crews in Wisconsin.
Even children are not exempted
from the stun belt Amnesty International said, citing the case of two 17-year-olds
recently made to wear the belt at their pre-trial hearings. "Perhaps it should
come as no surprise that the country which leads the world in executing child
offenders, tolerates a device which threatens them with pain and humiliation at
the touch of a button."