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Monday, September 01, 1997

Shock Value - U.S. stun devices pose human-rights risk

September 1997
Shock Value
By Anne-Marie Cusac
September 1997

Amnesty International lists the United States in the same class as Algeria and China in a March 1997 report. All three countries appear under a section titled, “Recent Cases of the Use of Electroshock Weapons for Torture or Ill-Treatment.”

A decade ago, the United States did not often show up as a culprit in Amnesty reports. But lately, the United States has become a leading manufacturer and exporter of pushbutton electricshock devices, which Amnesty claims are unsafe and are ending up in the hands of torturers. Of the 100 companies listed in the report, forty-two are U.S.-based. According to Amnesty, countries that have received stun weapons exported from the United States in the last decade include Yemen, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Cyprus, and Thailand.

One company the report cites is ArianneInternational of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, which makes the “Myotron”--a compact version of the stun gun “available in pearl, black, or white,” a salesperson tells me over the telephone. The company advertises the device as “small enough to carry on a big key ring and flat enough to carry in a shirt pocket. It’s five times more powerful than the best police stun gun.” A related device, the “Myotron-TM Venu,” is marketed especially to women.

Other prominent U.S.-based manufacturers of stun weaponry include Stun Tech of Cleveland, Ohio, known for its stun guns, stun shields, and especially its stun belts; Nova Products, Inc., of Cookeville, Tennessee, maker of tasers, along with other electronic devices; and Safe Defense Co., of Greenville, North Carolina, which, according to the company’s president, markets its stun guns to the general public through variety stores, “gun shops, pawn shops, uniform stores, and flea markets.”

Another company that makes an appearance in the Amnesty report is B-West Imports, Inc., of Tucson, Arizona, which in 1995 joined a South African company called Paralyzer Protection. B-West brings in Paralyzer shock batons and shields that deliver a charge of between 80,000 and 120,000 volts.

A B-West advertising brochure claims, “The Paralyzer stun baton is the result of a unique process developed by German scientists and doctors. The extensive testing done by the Department of Medicine at the University of Dusseldorf resulted in the correlation of volts, amps, and frequency to render a would-be assailant helpless without any damage to skin, eyes, or internal organs.”

Amnesty takes issue with that account. “The professor has since told Amnesty International that he was not specifically involved in developing the ‘Paralyzer’ range of stun guns and batons, but simply tested a particular stun device for another company in March 1985, the results of which cannot be applied directly to other stun devices,” the report states.

The report also devotes considerable attention to Tasertron, of Corona, California, the first company to manufacture the taser--a weapon that shoots two wires attached to darts with metal hooks from as far away as thirty feet. When the hooks catch in a victim’s skin or clothing, the device delivers a debilitating shock. Los Angeles police officers used the device against Rodney King in 1991.

A version of the weapon, the Air Taser, launches “two small probes attached to fifteen feet of TASER wire” through the air, according to the manufacturer, Air Taser, Inc., of Scottsdale, Arizona. Because the device uses air instead of gunpowder to power the shot, it is not regulated by the gun-control laws that apply to other tasers, which are banned for sale to consumers. The company has multiple Internet sites, complete with visuals. One image shows a small woman in high heels and a short skirt shocking a much larger man in a black knit cap. A jagged charge travels from her hand to his chest, where it creates a small explosion. “The AIR TASER sends powerful T-Waves™ through the wires (and up to two cumulative inches of clothing) into the body of the assailant, jamming his nervous system and incapacitating him,” proclaims the ad.

Air Taser also markets a new product it calls the Auto Taser. “Imagine an automotive defense system that fights back,” the company says. “Any attempt to touch the AUTO TASER zaps the thief with an unforgettable, yet non-lethal 5,900 milliwatt electron pulse. A thief can’t steal what he can’t touch.” The accompanying photograph shows a dark parking lot. A man reaches through a car window and lightning runs up his arm to his shoulder. He is grimacing and is falling backwards.

Air Taser claims its corporate mission is “to raise mankind above violent behavior by developing products which enable people to protect themselves without causing injury or death to another human being.”

But these devices also prove quite handy for people who want to commit crimes. In Britain, a country that prohibits handguns, stun weapons became a favorite tool of muggers until the government banned them.

Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union both claim the devices are unsafe and may actually encourage sadistic acts by police officers and prison guards. “Stun belts offer enormous possibilities for abuse and the infliction of gratuitous pain,” says Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She adds that because use of the belt leaves little physical evidence, this increases “the likelihood of sadistic, but hard-to-prove, misuse of weapons.”

“It’s possible to use anything for torture, but it’s a little easier to use our devices,” admits John McDermit, head of Nova Products.

In 1991, Terence Allen, a specialist in forensic pathology who served as deputy medical examiner for both the Los Angeles and San Francisco coroner’s offices, linked the taser to fatalities. “The taser contributed to at least these nine deaths,” Allen wrote in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. “It seems only logical that a device capable of depolarizing skeletal muscle can also depolarize heart muscle and cause fibrillation under certain circumstances.”

With electrical current, Allen tells me, “the chance of death increases with each use. This may have been a factor in Los Angeles. Some of the people who died there had been shocked as many as seven times.”

Warns Allen: “I think what you’re going to see is more deaths” from stun weapons.

As a result of his own work in forensic pathology, Allen is convinced that stun devices are already being abused in U.S. police stations and prisons. Some authorities, he says, can’t resist exploiting the power they have over people in their custody to “force them to lose control of their muscles.”

Allen describes a seventeen-year-old boy in Los Angeles who was accused of stealing. “They used a stun gun to extract a confession from him,” he says. “He had burns that exactly fit the probes.”

Allen is referring to the case of Jaime Ramirez. Before dawn on November 30, 1986, officers William Lustig and Robert Rodriguez stopped Ramirez, who was carrying a sack full of stereo parts, according to the Los Angeles Times. The two officers shocked the boy repeatedly with a stun gun in an attempt to force him to confess to stealing the equipment.

Ramirez sued the city. He testified that Lustig “told me that if I didn’t tell the truth, he was going to burn me,” reported the Los Angeles Times. Both officers then used the stun gun on Ramirez. “I felt like I was being burned,” the Los Angeles Times quoted Ramirez as saying. “I could not keep my legs still. . . . I was feeling the pressure in my heart. I could not breathe freely.” The two officers lost their jobs. Both were convicted and served time behind bars. The city of Los Angeles settled with Ramirez for $300,000.

Los Angeles is not the only American city where police officers abuse people with electroshock weapons. Phoenix, Arizona, is home to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, author of America’s Toughest Sheriff: How We Can Win the War Against Crime. But, under Arpaio’s charge, the Maricopa County Jails have come under some harsh criticism. In March 1996, the Department of Justice’s civil-rights division filed a report on the jails that strongly condemns “the fact that all jail guards carry stun guns. The easy availability of these weapons,” the Department of Justice examiner concluded, “has contributed to the excessive use of force.”

Guards at the Maricopa County Jails have been known to use the stun gun against an inmate “simply to see its effect,” the report states. It also cites “use of a stun device on a prisoner’s testicles while in a restraint chair.”

The Maricopa County Jail disputes nearly every charge in the Department of Justice report. They are “allegations by prisoners, unsubstantiated remarks,” says Lisa Allen, coordinator of communications for the sheriff’s office. The county complains that the Department of Justice report does not provide inmate names, dates, or times of the alleged incidents. But in fact, the report draws on videotapes and jail documents in addition to prisoner testimony.

“I’ve seen the photos. I’ve talked with inmates. I’ve seen the letters. I have dates. I have times,” says Nick Hentoff, a criminal and civil-rights attorney in Phoenix who says he has represented clients in “about a dozen suits ” against the Maricopa County Jails involving stun weapons. He says the county jails “have countless videos that show it.” Hentoff’s client, Bart David, currently has a lawsuit pending against the county. He claims that guards at one of the jails shocked him in the testicles.

In 1996, the Phoenix New Times, a newsweekly, reported the death of jail inmate Scott Norberg at the Maricopa County Jails. Norberg died while fighting with officers who were attempting to confine him in a restraining chair while strapping a towel around his mouth “to keep him from spitting.”

During the struggle, jailers shocked Norberg multiple times with stun guns. Inmates who witnessed Norberg’s death estimated that he had been shocked between eight and twenty times. Guards estimated the number of shocks at between two and six. “An examination of Norberg’s corpse commissioned by Norberg’s family puts the number at twenty-one,” wrote New Times reporter Tony Ortega.

Although the medical examiner ruled the death an accident, “at least one detention officer . . . contradicts the scenario that Norberg suddenly went limp,” wrote Ortega. “In fact, she claims she tried to tell the guards that they were suffocating Norberg, who had literally turned purple. She says an officer snapped back at her, ‘Who gives a fuck?’”

“Their policy is stun first, ask questions later,” says Hentoff. He claims to have seen “dozens of pictures” of jail inmates with stun burns. “You’ll see two little marks close together like vampire bites on their bodies,” says Hentoff. “Those are the stun-gun marks.”

In a letter released on August 3, 1997, Amnesty International detailed several more recent incidents of mistreatment at the Maricopa County Jails, including an inmate who “allegedly sustained broken teeth and spine and knee injuries after being kicked and beaten and stunned repeatedly with a stun gun.” After the beating, the prisoner alleges, he was confined for five hours in a restraining chair.

A second inmate fell asleep during processing in a central-intake room. “A stun gun was allegedly used to wake him up,” says Amnesty. The prisoner claims he was then thrown against a wall.

Ortega talked to a nurse in July who spilled the beans on her co-workers at the Maricopa County Jails. She told him many guards “seem to delight in treating inmates badly.” One time, “she saw a detention officer bring a man suffering from abdominal pain into a clinic,” Ortega reported. “The man refused to say what was wrong with him, so the detention officer zapped the patient with a stun gun to make him talk. ‘None of us could believe it,’ she says.”

Amnesty International claims the Commerce Department is not limiting sales of electronic devices overseas. “The United States will say it opposes torture, and it’s a party to the convention against torture,” says Brian Wood of Amnesty International. “However, as each month goes by, more and more of these electric-shock weapons are exported, and information is withheld about where, exactly, they’re sent to. This is unacceptable, especially since Amnesty first raised this issue with the U.S. government over a decade ago.”

Although Amnesty has asked the United States to guarantee that it will not knowingly export electroshock devices to torturing states, the Clinton Administration has yet to agree to slow the brisk U.S. trade in stun devices. In response to Amnesty’s campaign, over the past few months governments in Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom have announced that they will tighten prohibitions on the trade in stun weapons.

Though electric torture is on the rise worldwide, the U.S. Commerce Department does not group electroshock weapons with torture items, whose export it restricts. Instead, it classifies such devices as police equipment, which makes them easily exportable. The stun belt is considered offensive (as opposed to defensive) police equipment, so it still must receive a license before export to most countries. But, as Michael Lelyveld reported last year in The Journal of Commerce, manufacturers in NATO countries import stun devices as general merchandise and the U.S. Commerce Department does not track them.

“The lack of official data raises the possibility that this country may be the world’s biggest source of such products,” wrote Lelyveld. “But without tighter regulation, it is impossible to know.”

One NATO country that uses electronic weapons for torture is Turkey. Amnesty’s report cites the case of Mediha Curabaz, a twenty-five-year-old nurse. Police detained her on the street in 1991 and took her to the political branch of the Adana police headquarters. “They were making baseless accusations about people I work with and about people from the Adana Nurse’s Association, on whose committee I serve,” the Amnesty report quotes Curabaz as saying. “They asked me to support their allegations. . . . When I refused, they beat me furiously all over, took me in the room used for hanging people up by their arms or legs, and gave me electric shocks through my fingers, sexual organs, and nipples, saying degrading things about my body. They said, ‘You will certainly do what we say if we give you the electric truncheon.’ They thrust the electric truncheon violently into my sexual organs, and I felt a pain as if I was being drilled there with an electric drill.”

NATO countries can also provide an easy route for manufacturers intent on shipping their devices to other torturing states. “It begs the question, should the United States export them at all?” says Lelyveld.

Would the United States, under any circumstances, ever allow the export of the stun belt, for instance, to a torturing state? “I would not feel comfortable saying ‘never under any circumstances,’” says a Commerce Department spokesperson.

The U.S. Government itself is a big user of stun devices, especially stun guns, electroshock batons, and electric shields. In June 1996, Amnesty International asked the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to suspend use of the electroshock belt--citing the possibility of physical danger to inmates and the potential for misuse. The agency has not complied.

Amnesty International has come down particularly hard on the state of Wisconsin--which has a place of prominence in the March report for its plan to use the stun belt on chain gangs. That plan has now gone into effect. Wisconsin’s new chain gang started work at Fox Lake prison on June 2. The state has conducted no studies on the use of the belt on chain-gang members, even though physical work and summer heat could contribute to a dangerous level of stress on an inmate’s heart if he were shocked.

The first inmate to wear the belt on the Wisconsin chain gang was seventeen-year-old Clark Krueger. Though Krueger is a minor, he is doing time as an adult. But he is still subject to anti-smoking laws that apply to minors. And Krueger likes to smoke. He has been caught with cigarettes five times, enough to earn him 180 days in the segregation unit or a stint on the chain gang, according to Mary Neuman, the administrative captain at Fox Lake in charge of supervising the new work crews. Clark opted for the chain gang.

The state’s use of the belt on a minor is of special concern to Amnesty. Brian Wood calls it a “violation of the international convention on the rights of the child.”

When Fox Lake guards objected to the state’s plan to dress all members of the crew in stun belts, the Department of Corrections asked the prison to place the belt on at least one inmate at a time. Now the guards in charge of the gang are “moving it from one inmate to another from one day to the next,” says Gerald Berge, the warden at Fox Lake.

When I visit the prison, Berge tells me the prisoners are at work off prison grounds, at a cemetery in the city of Fox Lake. I follow Berge’s car down several miles of rural roads. It is a bright, windy July day--the first cool afternoon in a week. The graveyard lies next to a marsh and a curving river. Some of the headstones in the graveyard are more than 100 years old.

We watch as an inmate shifts a gravestone forward. A second worker dumps gravel behind the marker to prop it up. The inmates wear standard-issue green clothing and bright yellow vests. Each has twenty-five-inch leg restraints with padded cuffs around the ankles. They are chained to themselves, not each other. It is impossible to tell which inmate wears the stun belt under his clothes. Mary Neuman says that, for security reasons, she can’t let me know who has it on.

Two guards advise the work crew. A third stands back and watches, a rifle slung over his shoulder.

I am surprised. Wasn’t the stun belt supposed to make supervision with guns unnecessary?
Even if the entire work crew were to wear the stun belt, a guard with a gun would watch over them, says Berge. “The statute says one of the guards will be armed.”

When it comes to the stun belt, Berge is no cheerleader. “I would not feel comfortable having inmates out here all in stun belts without restraints,” he says.

“I think, frankly, the stun belt is more appropriate for transport,” Berge goes on. “We don’t have experience with inmates in stun belts working. It’s hard to endorse that.”

I ask Berge if he would feel comfortable if the crew were wearing only individual leg chains, and no belt. “Yes,” he says. Is he concerned about possible injury? “Not really,” he says. Then he qualifies the point. “If we had an inmate who had a cardiac condition that we were not aware of, that’s where the danger would be.”

After a few minutes of conversation, Neuman brings over inmate Earl Simington, who has agreed to talk with me about his experience on the chain gang. Simington is typical of the inmates assigned to the crew--someone let out on parole, who, as Neuman puts it, “didn’t get the message” and has landed back in prison. He is currently serving a thirty-month sentence.

“I have three misdemeanors and one felony on my record, and I’ll be twenty-seven at the end of July,” says Simington. He tells me his felony conviction was for possession of fifteen grams of marijuana.

Simington volunteered for the new chain gang because he was bored. “It’s not for the pay,” he tells me (inmates on the chain gang make between twenty and thirty cents per hour, according to Berge). “It makes my time go faster.”

Before he started work on the chain gang, the prison required Simington to sign a form giving officers permission to make him wear the belt and to shock him with it if he misbehaves.

He then practiced working outside cutting grass while wearing the belt. Simington is most concerned about the belt’s weight, and the discomfort from wearing it in the heat. The belt has a good heft, he tells me. He says if it were mandatory daily wear, he wouldn’t volunteer for the chain gang. “No one will want to be out there” if they have to wear it, he says.

Simington can’t remember seeing any medical information on the form he signed. “I was never told, except, ‘you may lose your bodily functions,’” he says. “I don’t know if there are any long-term effects or damage or anything like that. I would want to find out if there are bad sideeffects. I don’t know how long it’s been studied on people.”

Simington believes he has signed away his rights when it comes to the device. “When I signed that waiver form, that was saying, hey, you volunteered,” he says. “If you get hurt you can’t bring repercussions if it’s because of your behavior.”

Simington says the stun belt is too much. “We’re already doing time. We’re already chained. What more?”

Manufacturers of electroshock weapons continue to wave aside allegations that use of their devices is dangerous and may constitute a gross violation of human rights. And they are making innovations on some old favorites. A new stun weapon that may soon arrive at a police department near you: electroshock razor wire, specially designed for surrounding demonstrators who get out of hand.

Project Censored: United States Companies are World Leaders in the Manufacture of Torture Devices for Internal Use and Export

Title: "Shock Value: U.S. Stun Devices Pose Human-Rights Risk"
Date: September 1997
Author: Anne-Marie Cusac

Mainstream Media Coverage:
Chicago Tribune, 3/4/97, page 5, Zone N
Washington Times, 3/4/97, page 16A

Project Censored's
Top Ten Censored Stories of 1997

#FIVE: In its March 1997 report entitled "Recent Cases of the Use of Electroshock Weapons for Torture or Ill-Treatment," Amnesty International lists 100 companies worldwide that produce and sell instruments of torture. Forty-two of these firms are in the United States. This places the U.S. as the leader in the manufacture of stun guns, stun belts, cattle probe-like devices, and other equipment which can cause devastating pain in the hands of torturers.

According to the Amnesty International report, the following are some of the American companies currently engaged in the production and sale of such weapons: Arianne International of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; B-west Imports Inc., of Tucson, Arizona; and Taserton, of Corona, California. Arianne International makes the "Myotron," a compact version of the stun gun. B-West joined with Paralyzer Protection, a South African company, to produce shock batons that deliver a charge of between 80,000 and 120,000 volts. Taserton was the first company to manufacture the taser, a product which shoots two wires attached to darts with metal hooks. When these hooks catch a victim's skin or clothing, the device delivers a debilitating shock. Los Angeles police officers used the device against Rodney King in 1991.

These weapons are currently in use in the U.S. and are being exported to countries all over the world. The U.S. government is a large purchaser of stun devices, especially stun guns, electroshock batons, and electric shields. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty both claim the devices are unsafe and may encourage sadistic acts by police officers and prison guards, both here and abroad. "Stun belts offer enormous possibilities for abuse and the infliction of gratuitous pain," says Jenni Gainsbourough of the ACLU's National Prison Project. She adds that because use of the belt leaves little physical evidence, this increases the likelihood of sadistic, but hard-to-prove, misuse of these weapons. In June 1996, Amnesty International asked the Bureau of Prisons to suspend the use of electroshock belt, citing the possibility of physical danger to inmates and the potential for misuse.

Terence Allen, a specialist in forensic pathology who served as deputy medical examiner for both Los Angeles and San Francisco coroner's offices, in 1991 linked the taser to fatalities. With electrical current, Allen says, the chance of death increases with each use. Allen warns, "I think what you are going to see is more deaths from stun weapons."

Manufacturers of electroshock weapons continue to denounce allegations that use of their devices is dangerous and may constitute a gross violation of human rights. Instead, they are making more advanced innovations. A new stun weapon may soon be added to police arsenals, the electroshock razor wire, specially designed for surrounding demonstrators who get out of hand.

Student Researchers: Carolyn Williams, Susan Allen
Faculty Evaluator: Dan Haytin, Ph.D.