Shocking Discipline

by Barry Yeoman on March 1, 2000

Originally published in Mother Jones.

WHEN JEFFREY LEE WEAVER went on trial last year for killing a police officer, court officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, decided to try out their newest piece of electronic gadgetry. Because Weaver was serving as his own lawyer and would have to move around the courtroom, the 37-year-old couldn’t wear shackles. So officers fitted him with a stun belt—a device worn around his waist that, if activated by remote control, would deliver a 50,000-volt electric shock.

The first day of jury selection went smoothly. But on the second day, seemingly out of nowhere, the normally soft-spoken Weaver went ballistic. “All of a sudden, I heard him repeatedly yelling, ‘Goddammit, goddammit,’ and pounding his hands on the table,” says Raag Singhal, an attorney who represented Weaver during sentencing. “It was so shocking. No one had ever heard him say those kinds of words before.”

It took a few seconds before anyone realized what was going on. Elsewhere in the courtroom, a deputy had accidentally grazed the remote control, triggering Weaver’s belt. Lieutenant Michael Ryan of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department does not believe the shock device was fully activated. “If it was,” he says, “he would have went down in a heartbeat.”

The incident is just one of the latest in what human rights activists and even some law enforcement officials call a disturbing trend. Four years after Amnesty International and The Progressive magazine first warned about the marketing of stun belts, the shock devices have been adopted by at least 19 state prison systems and more than 100 sheriff’s offices, police departments, and jails, according to an Amnesty survey. Dennis Kaufman, president of the belt’s leading manufacturer, Stun Tech, says his company has sold 1,700 belts, with business growing 10 to 15 percent a year.

The belts are used to control defendants in courtrooms and inmate crews working beyond the prison walls. But they’re also used out of public view, where abuses can go unchecked. Deputies strap the belts on inmates being driven to hospitals or courthouses, and prison guards use them instead of shackles. At Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, 10 inmates were required to wear the belts while meeting with an attorney investigating charges of human rights violations; one prisoner who refused to wear the device was barred from speaking to the lawyer. Some officials even use the belt to control people with mental illness: The shock device was activated twice against Barrington Wilson, a Miami defendant whose behavior included eating his own feces and talking to an imaginary friend named Frank.

Stun Tech’s two current models are wide elastic belts that wrap around the waist, holding a two-pound electronic device against the left kidney. “When activated by remote control,” the company advises in its promotional literature, “the stun cycle operates automatically for eight seconds of continuous stun power.” The belts cause searing pain that temporarily immobilizes wearers, often causing them to fall writhing to the floor and lose control of their bladder and bowels. “The electrical current was so intense that I thought that I was actually dying,” Craig Ryan Shelton, a Kansas inmate who was shocked in a prison van, told human rights investigators.

Although no one has died from the belt, experts warn that a jolt could prove lethal to inmates with heart conditions. “Every discharge of a stun device is a roll of the dice for the life of the victim,” says Robert Greifinger, former chief medical officer for the New York prison system. Stun Tech claims that medical tests show its belts are safe, but will not release documentation.

Janice Christensen, director of campaigning for Amnesty International, says the belt’s growing popularity is not surprising, given the tripling of the U.S. inmate population over the past 20 years. “The more prisons we build, the more expensive it is to maintain staff,” she says. “Introducing this equipment is a lot easier than training new personnel, and these things are dirt cheap.” Broward County’s Lt. Ryan agrees: “It saves on manpower. Instead of having three or four armed deputies in the courtroom, you can have two.”

Some law enforcement officers worry that their colleagues are becoming too blasé about controlling inmates with electricity. “Using shock is an easy way out,” says Sheriff Jeff Crouch of Latah County, Idaho. “If they’re a problem, you push the button.”

Greifinger, the former medical officer, says such devices are particularly dangerous because a handful of guards and deputies will inevitably enjoy using them to inflict pain. “We can never effectively screen out sadistic people from our criminal justice system,” he says. Giving a remote-control switch to such a person “just makes it more susceptible that an ‘accident’ could happen.”

It was no accident when Ronnie Hawkins encountered a trigger-happy judge while defending himself against burglary charges in Long Beach, California. During a testy interchange, Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani ordered Hawkins to be quiet. “You are wearing a very bad instrument,” she warned. “If you want to feel it, you can, but stop interrupting.”

“You are going to electrocute me for talking?” Hawkins asked.

“No, sir, but they will zap you if you keep doing it,” she replied. A few seconds later, as the defendant was raising a constitutional issue, the judge directed a courtroom deputy to deliver an electric shock to Hawkins, who was seated and manacled. “You refused to obey my order to stop interrupting me,” she explained. Hawkins called the shock “excruciatingly painful. It made my body go into involuntary convulsions. It was horrible.”

In February 1999, responding to a lawsuit filed by Hawkins, federal Judge Dean Pregerson issued a preliminary injunction banning use of the stun belt by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office. The belt’s consequences go beyond the momentary shock it delivers, the judge noted in his opinion. “The stun belt, even if not activated, has the potential of compromising the defense,” Pregerson wrote. “An individual wearing a stun belt may not engage in permissible conduct because of the fear of being subjected to the pain of a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity. A pain-infliction device that has the potential to compromise an individual’s ability to participate in his or her own defense does not belong in a court of law.”