Pubdate: Tues, 9 June 1999
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Media Group 1999
Author: Julian Borger, in Washington


Increasing numbers of prisons in the US are controlling their inmates with
the use of electric shock weapons, which are frequently activated
accidentally or used arbitrarily as instruments of torture, Amnesty
International alleged in a report published yesterday.

The British-based human rights organisation called for the stun belt to be
banned, describing it as "a weapon that is worn by its victim".

A box at the back of the belt, which is triggered by remote control,
administers an eight-second shock of 50,000 volts, temporarily
incapacitating the wearer with pain.

"It may be state-of-the-art but it's torture nonetheless... It's torture by
remote control," William Schulz, Amnesty's US director, said.

He was launching a campaign backed by the former heavyweight boxer Muhammad
Ali and by Frank Serpico, a former whistleblower on corruption in the New
York police force.

The British prison service tested stun belts in 1995, but a spokesman said
yesterday that the tests had been abandoned. The manufacture or sale of such
electric shock weapons is banned in Britain.

An Ohio firm, Stun Tech Inc, says it has sold 1,800 belts to the American
prison system, most of the devices in circulation. The company markets them
as a non-lethal means of control in increasingly overcrowded and
understaffed prisons. But Amnesty International cited instances of
accidental use and claims of deliberate abuse.

During a trial in April in Florida, a police officer accidentally pushed the
button on a remote control device, delivering a 50,000 volt shock to the
defendant, Jeffrey Weaver. Amnesty's report quotes one of the lawyers
present as saying that "the defendant shouted in pain, repeatedly banged his
hands on the table... and tried to pull the belt away from his body."

In April last year a California judge ordered a defendant's stun belt to be
activated to stop him interrupting court proceedings, although - according
to the Amnesty report - he was "being loud, but not abusive; nor was he
making any threatening or aggressive movements."

The report also alleged that in Louisiana, minimum security prisoners who
are HIV positive or have Aids are regularly made to wear the belt because of
their medical condition.

It cites allegations of abuse at the Red Onion state prison in Virginia,
where the mostly white guards are said to have used stun belts to administer
shocks accompanied by racist abuse hurled at the inmates, three-quarters of
whom are black.

Speaking at a press conference in Washington yesterday, Mr Serpico said:
"Stun belts and electric instruments allow corruption and brutality to
flourish because there is no evidence and there are no tell-tale signs left

Speaking from Stun Tech headquarters in Cleveland, the company's chairman
Dennis Kaufman said that the stun belts leave a visible red mark for at
least a month after being activated and so cannot be used without trace.

He disputed Amnesty's claims that his products were being used for torture.

"Any inmate can say anything, but they're behind bars for a reason. They
have nothing to lose," Mr Kaufman said.

He conceded that there had been "several accidental activations," but argued
that the consequences were far less serious than the accidental firing of
guns. He rejected allegations that the belts had not been submitted to
proper medical tests.

"We have video documentation of them being used on 7,000 people with no
signs of permanent harm," Mr Kaufman said.

But Laila Ali, representing her father, Muhammad Ali, said the widespread
use of belts in prisons across the US represented "a step backwards" for
American civilisation and that they "reduce people to animals."

"Many times in his life my father fought for a belt. Today, he and I are
fighting against one," Ms Ali said.

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