Queen Anne's Co. considers stun belts for its chain gangs Rights advocates, even some in corrections, call the devices degrading

March 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CENTREVILLE - In many of the nation's prisons, time behind bars is no longer punishment enough. Prodded by a vengeful public and alert politicians, jailers in some states have cut down on hot meals and visiting hours and taken away furloughs, exercise gear, racy magazines and cable television. They dress inmates in black and white stripes again, and a county in Arizona dyes the men's underwear pink.

But Centreville, population 2,662, the wind-scrubbed seat of Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore, has bigger ideas. Starting next month, county authorities will become the latest to introduce chain gangs and perhaps the first to make them chainless.

Rather than shackling the ankles of inmates on outdoor work crews, the county may buy devices called stun belts that would send convicts writhing into the dirt if they tried to flee or fight.

Belts would save money

The stun belts are the latest device in the booming corrections industry, and they are starting to generate as much debate as the chain gangs. Some jailers and local officials like the idea of the belts because they would save money: Fewer guards would be needed to keep an eye on prisoners wearing them. And, these officials contend, there is no long-term physical damage to a prisoner who is stunned.

But human rights advocates and even some corrections officials around the country oppose the belts, portraying them as the most degrading new measure in a field that they regard as increasingly barbaric.

The belt comes with a battery and a receiver with electric prongs. From up to 300 feet away, an officer can press a button to detonate an eight-second burst of 50,000 volts of electricity and stun a fleeing inmate for up to 10 minutes. Once stunned, prisoners also lose control of their bladders and bowels.

"It overrides the body's neuromuscular system," said Dennis Kaufman, president of Stun Tech Inc. in Cleveland, which makes the belts. "Normally, you can open and close your hand twice in one second. This device makes it contract 20 times in a second. It wears the muscles down."

Kaufman said he has sold 1,100 to law-enforcement agencies, including 200 to the U.S. Marshals Service and 100 to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He said they are used in transporting dangerous prisoners or in court, replacing shackles.

Amnesty International has appealed to Washington to ban the belts, in part because it says they can be used to torture. It calls them "cruel, inhuman and degrading."

But Kaufman said they strike such terror in prisoners that a belt has been fired to subdue a prisoner only 14 times in the 30,000 occasions one has been worn. He said the belts cost $600 to $700 apiece and readily pay for themselves in reducing the number of officers needed to guard work crews.

Wisconsin plans to start using them soon. At Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's behest, the state Legislature last year ordered the adoption of chain gangs, joining Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa and some county sheriffs' departments. Bill Clausius, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that when the first Wisconsin gangs go out this spring, jailers will have the option of the belts or individual leg restraints.

It would be the first use of the belts for work-crew control, unless Queen Anne's County acts more quickly.

People in Centreville, a 200-year-old town an hour's drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Baltimore and Washington, say their interest in the stun belts and in chains reflects their growing anger about rising crime in their town.

Rehabilitation does not work, say people in Centreville. And prisoners have it too easy, they add. A convict gets free room, board, medical care and television, while they have to earn both their own keep and his. They want convicts to work. But they also want to stigmatize and shame the people who shamelessly violate them.

"Give them public humiliation," said Deborah Steenken, a crew leader for a fast-food chain who was resting on a bench in the courthouse square. "They never think twice about committing a crime."

In February, the three Queen Anne's County commissioners voted unanimously to institute chain gangs April 1 for many of the 80-some inmates at the county detention center. The commissioners are considering the stun belts as well as the chains.

All but the most trustworthy inmates at the detention center, which holds minimum- to maximum-security prisoners for up to 18 months, would wear chains or a belt.

"If they try to take off," said Michael F. Zimmer Jr., 45, the commissioner who proposed the gangs, "they could be zapped."

Zimmer said using chains or stun belts on prisoners also sent "a good message to children" when they spot convicts clearing brush and debris from roadsides.

"If you end up in trouble," Zimmer said he would tell children, "This could happen to you."

These attitudes trouble advocates of prisoner rights.

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