Harford's stun devices make escape a painful proposition for prisoners

January 24, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

If a prisoner tried to escape while being transported in Harford County, he could get zapped with the shock of his life.

After convicted murderer Dontay Carter's 28-hour -- for freedom out the bathroom window in a judge's chambers and subsequent recapture in Baltimore last week, Harford authorities said electronic stun devices used by sheriff's deputies can stop escapes, or even better, deter them.

"Prisoners can make an escape try at any time, anywhere," said Major E. Dale Zepp, bureau chief of the Court and Correctional Services Division of the Sheriff's Office. "If you always expect it, you can maintain control."

Using handcuffs and leg irons or shackles has long been standard procedure and they are removed in only two instances: when a prisoner goes before a jury or when a judge orders it in his courtroom.

About two years ago, to upgrade security, Sheriff Robert E. Comes approved the purchase of stun guns and stun belts that can immobilize a prisoner within seconds, Major Zepp said.

"We used to have a number of deputies injured in the course of transporting prisoners, but I can't recall even one workman's compensation claim since beginning to use these devices," said Major Zepp, a veteran of 33 years in law enforcement.

The stun gun, manufactured in Cleveland at a cost of about $175 and not available to the public, uses 50,000 volts of electricity, said DFC Dan Scott, who trains deputies in the proper use of the hand-held device called Ultron II.

"Within four seconds of activating the trigger, the neural sensors within the central nervous system of the stunned person are interrupted and collapse occurs," said Detective Scott.

A deputy then would have about 80 seconds to cuff and shackle the prisoner before the stunned subject could return to a combative state.

Detective Scott said a visual demonstration of the stun gun, with its crackling snaps as electricity arcs from contact point to contact point, often brings prompt compliance.

A wrist strap attached to a plug in the handle automatically deactivates the device, should it be wrenched from a deputy's grasp, so a prisoner cannot gain control of the stun gun and use it against the deputy guarding him.

"Ultron II also has a built-in fail-safe mechanism and shuts down after 15 seconds, so in the heat of the struggle, a deputy cannot overdo its use on a prisoner," said Detective Scott.

Every deputy using the device receives eight hours of instruction and must stun himself with a lower dosage as part of the required training to learn firsthand what a prisoner would feel NTC when it is activated, Major Zepp said.

The stun belt and the court belt, which cost about $400 each, work on the same principle, but provide a stronger electrical shock and can be activated by remote control. They are effective up to 350 feet and through thick walls, he said.

"All prisoners are instructed on how these belts operate and what happens if they do not comply with what we want them to do," said Detective Scott.

The belts are worn around the prisoner's waist and locked in the back. The court belt differs in that it has no straps to restrict arm movement. Nor does it have a metal ring in front and through which a prisoner's handcuffs can pass and through which a chain can also be linked to leg irons. In both belts, a battery pack fits against a prisoner's back in the kidney area.

The first push on a button on the remote control activates an alarm. If a prisoner does not comply within eight seconds, the electronic charge automatically activates unless shut off with a key.

"We show our inmates a video on what happens if they do not comply when wearing the stun belt," said Major Zepp. "The psychological impact serves as a major deterrent. We've never had to activate the stun belt on an inmate."

Only about two or three prisoners have come to Circuit Court wearing the court belt, said Cpl. Charles Kline, who oversees security at Circuit Court in Bel Air.

"If we suspect there may be trouble or know a prisoner is a high-risk, we'll use it, but the key in any security situation is always keeping a prisoner in sight," he said.

When Department of Correction personnel escort prisoners to Harford's courts, they follow their own procedures, and sheriff's deputies have no responsibility for them other than to assist, if needed.

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