Stun Belts For Prisoners: Order or Orwell?

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Cruel? A belt that delivers a 50,000-volt shock (and a likely pool of urine in a crowded courtroom) probably fits that definition. Unusual? Maybe no more so than exploding neck collars or magnetic boots for prisoners -- but those devices were Hollywood inventions. Stun belts are real and in use today, and now Amnesty International, in a report released Tuesday, is saying the devices are a human rights violation that puts the criminal justice system of the United States right down there with Singapore's.

The cause célèbre of this outcry involves one Ronnie Hawkins, a defendant in Long Beach, Calif., who was deemed disruptive in court by a judge last June. The judge ordered Hawkins zapped by the bailiff, and the tempest was on. But is it teacup-size? Supporters of the belts say they're the best and safest way to restrain a crazed defendant, and that they're used only for that purpose, never for punishment (that would be torture). But the watchdogs worry that when the belts are used not only in the courts but in jails by prison guards, the possibilities for abuse are practically endless. The U.S. loves to lecture countries such as China and Malaysia on their human rights records, yet unlike most other Western countries it still has the death penalty. Is there a disconnect there? Maybe, maybe not. Stun belts, too, have their justifications, but the image -- the wave of the judge's hand, the bailiff and his remote control, the instantly prostrate, urinating defendant -- is enough to give any supposedly civilized democracy a bit of a p.r. problem.