Officers training in use of stun belt Device used to keep prisoners in check opposed by ACLU

December 28, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

In the violent world where a pencil is a weapon, a 50,000-volt burst of electricity to the kidneys is considered fair play.

Baltimore detention center officials and the sheriff's department in Montgomery County are training officers to use stun belts to prevent escapes and to keep dangerous prisoners in check when they are in public.

Montgomery County has three belts and the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services in Baltimore expects to have its first three next month.

Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose the use of the belts, which deliver an eight-second jolt that has been likened to someone yanking your nerves through a small hole in your back.

"It's inherently gruesome," said Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU. "It's like something right out of a torture chamber."

But law enforcement officials say that the $800 black nylon-and-touch-fastener belt keeps the public safer and prevents the kinds of injuries that occur when a prisoner goes on a rampage while being driven to court or while in the courtroom.

The Division of Pretrial Detention has one officer trained in the use of the belt and is preparing others to be part of a team, said spokeswoman Barbara Cooper.

"It will help us prevent injury to our officers, the public and the prisoners we have custody of," she said.

Eight weeks ago, a Montgomery County man accused of first-degree assault punched his lawyer and bit a court officer before he could be subdued by five sheriff's deputies, one of whom was injured and has not returned to full-time duty.

"It was like the WWF in there," recalled Sgt. Michael Godwin, likening it to the mayhem of professional wrestling. "It was muscle against muscle, man against man."

Early last month, the same prisoner was back in court for a hearing, this time with the 4-pound stun belt cinched around his middle and the warning of what it would do in his head. The courtroom appearance went without incident.

"The belt makes everyone the same size," said Godwin, the first in the Montgomery department to be certified an instructor in the use of the device.

"Actually, it makes our deputies a little bit bigger," added Sheriff Raymond Kight.

The sheriff, a 31-year veteran of the department, said prisoners have pummeled his deputies with courtroom water pitchers and chairs. One deputy was stabbed in the eye with a pencil.

Stun belt technology is the same as the more familiar stun guns, explained Dennis Kaufman, a 29-year police veteran and president of Stun-Tech Inc., the manufacturer of the REACT belt.

The belt has two dime-size metal studs that are lined up over the kidneys of a prisoner. A battery pack supplies the power, which is activated by a hand-held remote box. The box beeps a warning before it is activated, reminding both the prisoner and his jailer what can happen.

The belt does not harm the wearer because the amperage is low -- lower than an electrified fence around a farm field, Kaufman said.

The training video shows about a dozen police officers being shocked and writhing face down on a protective mat, screaming in pain. Interviewed later, they likened the pain to "clawing," "biting," and having nerves pulled from their bodies.

Godwin, who was stunned in October as part of his 40 hours of training, said it felt like "someone was tearing at my side and shining a heat lamp on it."

Since it came on the market five years ago, the REACT stun belt has been bought by the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and more than 15 states and 100 counties, Kaufman said.

He estimated the belt has been worn nationwide 50,000 times with 29 activations, eight of them accidental.

Harford County has had a stun belt since 1994 for prisoners being driven from the detention center to Circuit Court, according to Lt. Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for sheriff's office.

"It's been worn very, very rarely -- only when the attitude of the individual necessitates it," Hopkins said.

Montgomery officials said the stun belt is placed only on those prisoners with a history of violence or escape. They receive a written warning before they wear the belt, and the jail medical staff can veto its use on any prisoner.

It hasn't been activated in the 10 times it has been worn, Godwin said.

Noting health concerns and the potential for abuse, Amnesty International has campaigned for a ban on the use of stun belts until extensive testing is done.

Kaufman responded: "Amnesty International would much rather see five or six deputies jump on somebody than see them stunned. If somebody misuses the belt, somebody is going to get into trouble."

The ACLU also warns of misuse, and points to a case in June where a Los Angeles County Municipal Court judge ordered a bailiff to stun into silence a talkative defendant who was acting as his own lawyer.

The FBI is investigating the case and the defendant has filed suit against the judge.

"Stun belts are an appropriate alternative to shackles," said Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the ACLU of Southern California. "The problem is when you start using the belt in much less dangerous situations and they become commonplace. There will be mistakes made. It is inevitable."

For that reason, Kight insists that training include wearing the belt and withstanding a jolt.

"It's a long eight seconds," said Godwin, who can still see the red marks on his back. "You're really going to have to push me so that there's no question that it has to be done."

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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