Cruel & Unusual Punishment

During a break in his trial on charges of assault, Edward Valdez walked out of the San Diego courtroom into the hallway where jurors were standing around waiting. Suddenly he screamed and crashed to the floor. “He was out for about a minute,” said the prosecutor. “It was very effective.”

What the prosecutor was praising, the cause of Valdez’s sudden collapse, was the accidental discharge of an electronic shock belt, popularly called a stun belt, which the defendant had chosen to wear under his clothing rather than appear in handcuffs and chains before the jury. Stun belts deliver 50,000-volt shocks to the left kidney, which fan out from there through blood channels and nerve pathways. Shocks can be administered by guards from a distance of 300 feet simply by the push of a button. This is one of the reasons why stun belts are so popular with police and correctional officials, especially those who oversee the increasing number of chain gangs and don’t want to get near their prisoners to incapacitate them.

And incapacitate the belts surely do. An eight-second application of shock inevitably knocks a person to the ground and may induce urination, defecation, or unconsciousness. Manufacturers promote them as nonlethal alternatives to guns because they allegedly allow for effective control of prisoners without inflicting lasting damage. That is a major reason why the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided in 1994 to use stun belts in medium- and high-security lockups. Since then dozens of state and county officials have purchased them.

The stun belt is only one of the latest in a series of devices using electric shock that have been manufactured in the United States to provide law enforcement officials with what is advertised as a safe, convenient means of controlling and transporting prisoners. Stun guns, shock batons, electric shields, some of them using up to 250,000 volts on low amperage—these and many similar devices are becoming more and more commonplace in sheriffs’ offices and prison guard stations across the country.

Unlike the traditional electric cattle prod, which causes intense localized pain, stun weapons are designed to temporarily incapacitate a person, inflicting agonizing pain throughout the body in a matter of seconds. One of the most popular, the Taser, which fires electrified darts connected to a wire, was first tested in 1969 by John H. Cover, Jr., and later became famous when it was used against Rodney King. Of those early tests, which he performed on himself, Cover says, “I…immediately knew that I had found what I was looking for—an electric shock that was harmless in terms of not killing or injuring—but made you ‘TAKE NOTICE’—it was a MOOD Changer!!” According to Cover, the National Rifle Association and “small arms gun lobby groups,” apparently fearing Tasers would displace guns, tried to put the manufacturer out of business after it began marketing its product in 1975. But support from such satisfied customers as the Los Angeles Police Department (which …

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