Technology of pain

Daily Telegraph Connected 10 June 1997Shock horror – torture and the technology of pain

Daily Telegraph Connected 10 June 1997

Throughout his month long murder trial at the end of last year Manuel Salazar went without the handcuffs or leg-irons usually worn to court by prisoners in Will County, Illinois. Instead, barely detectable under his shirt and sweater, he was locked into a remotely controlled electronic belt capable of delivering an eight-second 50,000 volt shock to his back just above his left kidney.

Should Salazar have bolted in transit, or behaved violently in the courtroom, either one of his two guards would have hit their remote controls. A warning beep would have sounded for a brief second, and then, if within the control device’s 90 metre (300 feet) range, Salazar would have experienced a rapidly pulsing four milliamp current throughout his entire body. This would have instantly incapacitated him and caused excruciating pain peaking at the end of the eight-second cycle.

According the device’s developer, Stun Tech Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio, the REACT (Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology) belt has been bought by more than 740 US police agencies since it was introduced in May 1991, and has been worn more 25,000 times. As of July 1, 1996, the $695 belt, which comes with strait-jacket like wrist restraints and a D-ring for handcuffs, had been activated 21 times according to company records, 12 times intentionally and nine accidentally. In each case, the company says, the wearer was “floored”.

One such event, occurring when a remand prisoner became threatening during a visit to hospital, is described in police report from Kankakee, also in Illinois. “The transport officer stopped the subject with one touch of the transmitter, putting him on the floor,” writes Daniel M. Harrington, Stun Tech Instructor. “The inmate begged the transport officer to turn off the belt as he lay in a heap on the floor. After the 8 second time was over the subject had to be helped back on the table. It was then learned that he had urinated himself.”

Although no independent medical study of such belts has been conducted, Stun Tech, whose brochure promises “total psychological supremacy of potentially troublesome prisoners,” claims that its belts are safe and offers legal support following any use. The company also stresses that a jury may become prejudiced against a conventionally shackled defendant. But medical reports from other electro-shock weapons indicate that a high pulse rate 50,000 volt shock lasting eight seconds will result in localised burns and could result in long term physical and mental injuries.

The most studied and most frighteningly widespread electro-shock weapon is the electro-shock baton, or ‘stun’ gun. Usually taking the form of a plastic truncheon wound, or tipped, with electrodes, or a device that looks rather like large electric razor with two stubby electrodes in place of the blade, many offer sophistications such as ergonomic grips, dramatically sparking electrodes, and disabling devices designed to stop the weapons being turned on their owners.

Despite being prohibited – along with all electro-shock devices including the REACT belt – in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan and Hawaii, electro-shock batons and ‘stun’ guns are widely marketed in the USA as personal protection weapons. The 65,000 volt ‘Mini’ retailing at $49.95 is “conveniently handbag-sized,” the advertisements tell us, and the 160,000 volt ‘Paralyser,’ retailing at $129.95, is “strong enough to take down any attacker… even those under the influence of alcohol and/or narcotics will feel as if they fell out of a two storey building and landed on a concrete sidewalk.”

Research conducted by the UK Home Office Forensic Science Service in 1990, on a previous generation of lower voltage devices, indicates that the consequences might be even worse. A electric baton discharge of 1 – 2 seconds will probably cause victims to collapse, the report says, and a 3 – 5 second discharge will probably leave them “immobilised, incapacitated, dazed and weak for at least five, perhaps 15 minutes”. The report also stresses that secondary injuries are likely as victims hit the ground, and that death can easily result through fibrillation of the heart muscles.

Illegal in most European countries, and classified as a weapon in the UK with possession or sale carrying a jail sentence of up to five years, modern electro-shock ‘stun’ weapons are far more sophisticated than the low voltage, relatively high amperage cattle prods which inspired them. Now high voltage and low amperage is the norm, but the crucial innovation of ‘stun’ technology is the high frequency and short duration of the shocks, which is designed to interrupt the nerve impulses that direct muscle movements. Extreme local pain in the area where the current is being applied is one result, but the main objective is the electronic overwhelming of neuromuscular system.

Obviously, such portable and easily concealed devices specifically designed to cause pain, fear and humiliation make ideal tools for unscrupulous security, police and prison officers. Unlike beatings or cigarette burns, the physical evidence of electric shock torture can be difficult to detect, with the small burns resulting from electric arcs healing within weeks. Commonly the most sensitive parts of the body are targeted, including armpits, faces, necks, the genitals and the insides of mouths, ears, vaginas and rectums. Not for nothing has the electric shock baton been described as “the universal tool of the torturer”.

The immediate effects of such ill-treatment include convulsions, fainting and involuntary defecation. Longer term effects are more sinister and include impotence, damage to the teeth (through involuntary clenching), hair and memory loss, nightmares, and chronic depression and anxiety.

Amnesty International has documented the use of electric shock for torture in 50 countries since 1990*, and found evidence of the use of modern ‘stun’ technology in 18. The organization says that the use of the new technology is increasing and has identified over 100 companies worldwide offering to supply the devices. According to the organization, companies in the USA, China, South Korea and Taiwan lead the pack, with those in Brazil, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico and South Africa following.

The Channel Four Dispatches programme ‘Back on the Torture Trail’, broadcast in March 1996, also found electric shock torture unsettlingly common. The programme showed men who had been tortured on their eyes, necks and testicles with electro-shock batons in the Lebanon and Zaire, and uncovered a web of British companies prepared to deal in electro-shock devices. These included the Royal Ordnance Division of British Aerospace, ICL Technical Plastics in Glasgow, and SDMS Security Products in London who, in collaboration with associates in South Africa, claimed to have sold electro-shock devices to Libya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Angola, Mexico, Peru, Burma and Indonesia.

Amnesty is most concerned by the spread of modern electro-shock ‘stun’ technology. The organization makes a strong case that it is used often for torture and urges governments and companies to recognise this fact and take immediate steps to prevent its transfer to countries where torture and ill-treatment are reported.

Amnesty also severely criticises electro-shock belts. “They could constitute a violation of international human rights standards which prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” says a spokesperson, “and law enforcement officers can use them to psychologically threaten a prisoner. We are also very concerned that such belts will be transferred to other countries where electro-shock weapons have been routinely used for torture”.

Other imaginative developments of ‘stun’ technology include electrified shields designed for riot control in prisons (some of which deliberately crackle and display electric arcs), electric sided vehicles for riot control on a larger scale, and briefcases which become live with 50,000 volts if snatched from their owners.

Another more notorious development is the Taser gun, which uses smokeless gunpowder or compressed air to fire two wire-trailing barbed darts over a distance of up to five metres (15 feet). Once embedded in the target, a second pull on the trigger delivers 50,000 volts for two to three seconds. The device was taken up enthusiastically by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980, who most infamously “tasered” Rodney King before beating him, as was shown on television and precipitating the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

The US Consumer Protection Safety Commission has described taser guns as, “non lethal to normal, healthy adults,” but following medical reports that the taser shock made King more vulnerable to the beating, the Los Angeles County Court recommended that the Sheriff’s department replace its Tasers with guns that fire plastic bullets. Other medically qualified critics of the device point to 16 catalogued taser-related deaths in Los Angeles, including nine individuals “who were alive and active, collapsed on tasering, and did not survive”.

In a paranoid and sometimes violent society the attractions of such weapons are obvious. Tom Smith, who established Air Taser Inc in 1993 because he was looking for an effective personal security device his mother would be comfortable using, points to some of the advantages. “With conventional stun guns you have to touch the person,” he says. “Mace and pepper sprays have inherent problems such as the possibility of getting the stuff back in your face, and guns are too drastic.”

Quoted in the October 1996 issue of Security Products, Smith claims to export to more than 35 countries. “Overseas we primarily sell to law enforcement,” he says, “and then when they are comfortable, we move to the mass market”. Perhaps he should meet ‘Roberto’, a 50-year-old university professor arrested and tortured in Zaire in 1991. “This type of weapon… I could really call it something really horrible – immoral – because those people who make it don’t test it on their own bodies and they don’t know what pain it causes,” he says. “They do it quite simply to make money. It’s very sad.”

* Arming the Torturers: Electro-Shock Torture and the Spread of Stun Technology (AI Index: ACT 40/01/97) issued by Amnesty International March 1997.

Next >>