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!!”1 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 had discovered that, among other things, shock batons took people on PCP “off their high” immediately) kept the company thriving.

As of 1995, though stun guns were reported to be illegal in Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and in some municipalities, they were used in many other states, including Oklahoma, Arizona, Florida, and Iowa, as well as by the federal government. At least forty US companies manufacture shock devices and not a few of them sell them overseas. While not alone in the market, the United States has a corner on the business.


One of the most prominent of those US companies is Stun Tech of Cleveland, Ohio, manufacturers of the popular electronic shock belt called R-E- A-C-T (for Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology). Stun Tech’s basic information packet describes the name choice:

For every action there is a R-E-A-C-Tion—basic physics. Therefore, activation of the belt would only be in response to a violent act, a choice made by the individual wearing the belt and acted upon by the attending control officer.2

The emphasis on the limited uses to which such a device should be put reflects Stun Tech’s tacit recognition that it is peddling a product that could easily be used irresponsibly; it states, for example, that it will not sell belts without buyers participating in an in-depth training program.” “Note,” the packet announces in bold print, “Any use of the R-E-A-C-T belt system for officer gratification, inmate punishment, torture or interrogation will result in criminal charges against that officer or agent.” But how Stun Tech would ever know about such misapplication or find itself in a position to press charges against such “officers or agents” is hard to imagine. Dennis Kaufman, president of the company, recently said that he has sold some 1,100 stun belts to US law enforcement agencies, including 300 to the federal government;3 he has acknowledged, however, that Stun Tech does no research on the prison systems to which it sells its products. 4


If Stun Tech pays lip service to restraint, its other promotional statements make a point of its belt’s crueler uses. One of the great advantages, the company says, is its capacity to humiliate its wearer. “After all, if you were wearing a contraption around your waist that by the mere push of a button in someone else’s hand could make you defecate or urinate yourself,” the brochure asks, “what would that do to you from the psychological standpoint?” And if the shock ever has to be administered? “One word—,” brags the brochure, “DEVASTATION!”

The stun belt causes this result with only a one-second delay between the activation of the device by a guard and the onset of the eight-second shock. No doubt the brevity of the delay time helps to explain why the belt has been unintentionally activated by officials nine times. This was the result, Kaufman says, of operator errors, and after such errors were publicized, the company felt it had to install a switch guard on its belts so that the person controlling the belt could not casually flip on current. But no switch guard can offset the fact that the 50,000 volts can be administered in eight-second segments as frequently as the operator chooses; and no switch guard can mitigate the apparent propensity of human beings to inflict gratuitous pain upon their fellows—particularly if they can do so from a distance.


Brutality is not difficult to document when it comes to guards’ treatment of prisoners or police officers’ behavior toward suspects, particularly racial minorities. Within the past ten months human rights groups have reported on apparent increases in the number of police shootings and the number of people who have died in custody in New York City, as well as the widespread occurrence of rape of women prisoners by male guards in eleven state prisons for women.5

Electronic shock weapons and particularly the stun belt differ from fists and clubs in that many of them require little physical contact between the operator and the recipient of the shock. Furthermore, most of them leave little, or no, evidence on the victims’ bodies that any kind of coercive action has taken place. Unlike a gunshot wound, a bruise from a police club, or a rape, electronic shock usually provides investigators with little physical proof with which to corroborate charges of brutality. Since the shocks can be applied repeatedly, the only restraints on their sadistic repetition are the training, supervision, and ultimately the discretion of the officer involved. There is reason to suspect, however, that such discretion may decline in direct proportion to the increasing physical distance between operator and victim.

Among the most famous, if controversial, psychological tests ever performed in an American laboratory were those of a Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, who tried to measure the extent to which volunteer subjects would administer electric shocks to a victim if instructed to do so by an authority figure, in Milgram’s case the experimenter.6 Milgram found that a high percentage of people would continue to administer shocks even when they heard the recipient cry out in pain and beg them to stop. They were sometimes willing to continue even past the point when the victim (who was, unknown to the subjects, an actor) feigned unconsciousness. Milgram was criticized for being inconsiderate of his volunteer subjects, but his conclusions about their behavior were stark:

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority…into performing harsh acts.

Police officers and prison guards work within a rigid structure of command. Milgram’s experiments were widely criticized at the time, both on ethical and scientific grounds. But if he is even partially correct, the power of authority could either increase the abusive use of weapons if that were the order of superiors or, conversely, it could discourage such abuse if the commanding officers and officials took strong positions against it.

One little-remarked aspect of Milgram’s study, however, suggests particularly alarming consequences when it comes to the use of stun belts. For Milgram also found that the more physically remote the victim from the subject, the greater the likelihood the subject would administer shock to a dangerous level. The farther away the shock victim, Milgram said, the “more difficult for the subject to gain a sense of relatedness between his own actions and the consequences of these actions for the victim.”

The stun belt can be used from distances of up to 300 feet. It is designed exactly for circumstances in which guards want to control prisoners without getting near them. Indeed, one of the device’s major selling points is that it provides guards with psychological dominance over prisoners because those prisoners can seldom be sure who is administering the shock or when or for what offense it might be delivered. In this sense, prisoners are unable to “read” the face or the body language of their potential shocker and, similarly, the officer need not look into the eyes of the victim. As Milgram put it, “It is easier to harm a person when he is unable to observe our actions than when he can see what we are doing.” In courtroom use, two activating transmitters can be provided, one for the court officer and one for the judge, thus ensuring that a prisoner will be uncertain where his punishment is coming from. The stun belt appears to make it as easy as possible both emotionally and logistically to deliver a disabling jolt of pain.



Is that jolt and those provided by other electronic shock weapons physically dangerous or can the manufacturers legitimately claim to have produced a safe, nonlethal control device? John Cover insists that “police use of Tasers has saved at least 20,000 lives, officers & criminals thus far. And all claims that it killed have been disproven….”7 One study, though, reported at least three deaths from cardiac arrest among some 218 patients brought to a Los Angeles emergency clinic between 1980 and 1985 after being shot by police with Taser guns. In these cases, the heart failure was caused by a sharp increase in the toxicity of the drug phencyclidine (PCP) which the patients had ingested. And in July 1996, a twenty-nine-year-old woman, Kimberly Lashon Watkins, died of cardiac arrest after being shot with a Taser by Pomona, California, police.8

Medical opinion on the effects of shock weapons is decidedly mixed. For one thing, as Tim McGreevy, an independent consulting engineer who has tested dozens of stun guns, points out, the effectiveness of such weapons depends upon many variables: not only the voltage but the kind of batteries used, the amount of energy delivered in each electrical pulse, the thickness of the clothing worn by the recipient, and the place on the body where the shock is applied. Manufacturers’ claims about the effects of the peak voltage a device can deliver, McGreevy has concluded, are not a reliable indicator of a stun gun’s performance, since testing a shock weapon’s true effectiveness is difficult. “Most buyers do not wish to test the various models on themselves,” McGreevy notes dryly, “and there is a dearth of volunteer subjects (particularly those who would volunteer to test 15 different models [of stun guns] and be shocked repeatedly with each one).”9

Stun Tech itself says that it has never conducted an independent study, with external referees, on its product.10 In fact the only medical evidence of the belt’s safety included in Stun Tech’s information package is a letter from Dr. Robert A. Stratbucker of the University of Nebraska Medical Center reporting on the testing of the stun gun—not even the stun belt—on “anesthetized swine.” He then concluded that the belt would be no worse, that is, “no more hazardous than properly employed older style stun devices, a hazard itself which has been previously proven to be trivial under circumstances of proper usage.”11 [emphasis added]

Other physicians dispute the “trivial” impact of “older style stun devices.” Dr. Armand Start, head of the National Center for Correctional Healthcare Studies and a former prison physician, challenges the claim that stun guns are harmless and cites studies that warn of possible respiratory arrest, ventricular fibrillation, heart pump failure, and cardiac arrhythmias, after only two to three seconds of shock, to say nothing of eight.12 A 1990 study by the British Forensic Science Service reached similar conclusions,13 and at least one death has been directly attributed to an electronic riot shield, ironically the death not of a prisoner but of a Texas corrections officer who had agreed to undergo two 45,000-volt shocks as part of a test and collapsed shortly afterward.14

What is clear is that electronic stun weapons, particularly the newer ones, have not been adequately tested to determine the long-term medical effects of such shocks, especially if they are applied repeatedly. And what virtually everyone, including most manufacturers, agrees on is that stun weapons should not be used on certain categories of prisoners. Peter M. Carlson, Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, says that it is not the Bureau’s policy to use stun belts on “1) pregnant female inmates, 2) inmates with heart disease, 3) inmates with multiple sclerosis, 4) inmates with muscular dystrophy, and 5) inmates who are epileptic.”15 But early pregnancy, heart disease, and cerebral or aortic aneurysms, among other diseases, are notoriously hard to spot on the basis of standard medical screening. And even the healthiest prisoners could sustain a life-threatening injury if they crashed to the ground unexpectedly.


Whatever the limitations of medical screening in American prisons, such screening cannot possibly take place before an arrest or during riot control—two situations in which shock batons and shields are frequently employed. Moreover, shock weapons have consistently been used by foreign regimes to inflict the most excruciating forms of torture upon their victims.

The use of electronic shock weapons for torture has been reported in at least eighteen countries, including Egypt, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps most notoriously in China. In 1995, for example, Mexican security forces, particularly the state judicial police, were accused of torturing hundreds of prisoners of conscience and members of ethnic minorities through near-asphyxiation, forcing peppered water into the nose, and electric shocks.16

In Saudi Arabia refugees from Iraq accused of spying for Saddam Hussein have been subjected to electronictorture. One of them described it this way:

The secret police handcuffed me…. A bar was put between my legs. Then they started beating me up with the electronic sticks. For many hours they tortured me on the soles of my feet. Being hit with an electronic baton not only made me vomit but I lost control of everything. I lost control of my bowels, my water…. I was left in my own vomit and urine all night.

Torture with electronic equipment may be the most widespread in China where political prisoners report its repeated application to their ears, teeth, necks, armpits, inner thighs, and genitalia. Tibetan monks and nuns who are imprisoned for their peaceful advocacy of freedom for Tibet are some of those most consistently abused by electric torture. Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned for thirty-three years, managed to smuggle Chinese torture instruments into India and, referring to an electronic baton, he said,

This is the worst thing…. If they press that button, your whole body will be in shock. If they do it for too long, you lose consciousness but you do not die. If they press this button, you can die. They used it all the time on my body.17

Sale of electronic shock weapons is prohibited in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Are American companies supplying electronic weapons to countries that use them for torture? Remarkably enough, it is almost impossible to find out. The Commerce Department created in 1994 a separate export licensing category for “specially designed implements of torture,” the apparent presumption being that any manufacturer honest enough to call a torture instrument a torture instrument would thereby be assured of being denied a license. But such instruments as stun guns, shock batons, and riot shields are categorized as “crime control” items and can be sold without restriction as “general merchandise.” 18

Between 1991 and 1993 the Department issued 2,083 licenses for the sale of “crime control equipment” valued at $117,300,000 to 106 countries; the Department refuses to say how much of this sum was paid for stun weapons. Reportedly, export of such equipment was approved last year to such countries as Mexico, Lithuania, Panama, and Tanzania, though the Commerce Department’s confidentiality rules make it difficult to know for certain.19

If the Commerce Department’s control of the export of thumbscrews is any measure, however, there is cause for concern. Thumbscrews are miniature handcuffs which are good for virtually nothing but inflicting pain. The Department has acknowledged approving an unspecified shipment of them to Russia last year. It will not say to whom in Russia it authorized the sale. The Department’s own export license records for 1995 reveal, however, that it authorized the sale of “police helmets/handcuffs/shields used for torture” to Saudi Arabia, a country whose police are well known for their brutality.20 (See the illustration on page 52.)

Just as worrisome, thumbscrews, blackjacks, and electronic weapons can be shipped legally under the category of general merchandise to NATO countries (including Turkey, where torture is a common practice), Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Nor has the government required those who order and use such equipment to sign certificates that it would not be re-exported.21 Amnesty International research shows that approximately forty US companies are manufacturing shock technology that could be exported and used for torture. Whether their equipment has fallen into the hands of torturers is at the moment impossible to know.


Article VIII of the US Bill of Rights prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the US is a party forbids torture and degrading treatment or punishment. Whether or not electronic shock falls into any of these categories depends at least in part upon ascertaining the full medical effects of its application, effects which are still under debate. Until a rigorous, independent medical review of electronic shock weapons is undertaken and it is shown that they do not contribute to deaths in custody or constitute ill-treatment according to both US and international standards, their use by government officials should be suspended.

In one respect the United States is already violating international guidelines. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners expressly prohibit the use of restraints, such as the stun belt, on prisoners appearing before a judicial authority. This prohibition has been repeatedly violated, not just in the case of Edward Valdez but in others such as that of James Filiaggi. Filiaggi appeared before the Lorain County, Ohio, Common Pleas Court in 1995 wearing a stun belt. According to news reports, a deputy escorting Filiaggi into court accidentally set off the belt on the first day of the trial, causing Filiaggi to fall to the ground. After his conviction, his lawyer appealed, claiming that the shock incapacitated his client and rendered him incapable of helping with his defense. The appeal was denied.22

The use of stun belts on prisoners appearing in court should certainly be outlawed. And the United States should prohibit the sale of instruments which can potentially be used for torture or ill-treatment to any country with a clear record of such abuses. At the very least, all recipient countries should be monitored to ascertain the uses to which such exported equipment is put.

It is hardly likely, however, that electronic weapons will ever be done away with altogether. In view of current national trends favoring more severe punishment of prisoners and the reintroduction of chain gangs, the odds seem strong that shock weapons will be used even more frequently in the years ahead. And there seems little prospect that their export will be effectively restricted. But it may not only be human rights groups and concerned medical doctors that are insisting that prisoners must not be subjected to devastating electric shocks, and that the restraint of prisoners should not lead to what may amount to an execution. The 20,000-member American Correctional Association has condemned the chaining of prisoners and similar practices as “harsh and mean-spirited,” adjectives which might well apply to stun belts. The dangers of the misuse of stun weapons and of their accidental discharge against innocent citizens who are standing trial should be obvious. So should their potential for misuse by governments overseas.

Governments, moreover, are far from the only buyers of stun guns. As the market grows larger and competition among manufacturers increases, stun guns and electronic batons are being sold increasingly to private security companies and private citizens. It is even possible that they will be used by teachers to keep order in classrooms or by nurses to control the mentally ill in hospitals; and we may not be far from the day when carrying a stun gun in one’s purse is as common as carrying a whistle or a can of mace is today.

If Stanley Milgram was right, large numbers of people cannot be trusted to use such instruments responsibly. That is all the more reason not only to prevent torture of potential victims but to protect the users of electronic instruments from their worst selves.

This Issue

April 24, 1997