Tasers have been misused or linked to accusations of torture or corporal punishment in U.S. prisons and jails, Reuters reports in the sixth of a series. The news service identified 104 deaths involving Tasers behind bars. That was 10 percent of a larger universe of more than 1,000 fatal law enforcement encounters in which the weapons were used. A Taser was listed as a cause or contributing factor in more than a quarter of the 84 inmate deaths in which the news agency obtained autopsy findings. Of the 104 inmates who died, just two were armed. A third were in handcuffs or other restraints when stunned. In more than two-thirds of the 70 cases in which Reuters was able to gather full details, the inmate already was pinned to the ground or held by officers when shocked.
Tasers, designed to control violent or threatening suspects on the street, have fewer legitimate uses behind bars, where prisoners typically are confined in a cell, often restrained and almost never armed. While Tasers can stop an assault on a guard or another inmate, experts say the weapons too frequently are used on people who pose no imminent physical threat. Tasers have “high potential for abuse” behind bars, said U.S. Justice Department consultant Steve Martin, a former general counsel for the Texas Department of Corrections who has inspected more than 500 U.S. prisons and jails. “When you inflict pain, serious pain, for the singular purpose of inflicting pain, not to accomplish a tactical objective, what is that? It meets the definition of the legal standard of excessive force, but it’s also torturous.” The stun guns’ manufacturer says they are an effective tool for guards who typically do not carry guns and have few other force options for controlling combative inmates. Tasers can “make correctional environments significantly safer for all parties,” said Steve Tuttle of Axon Enterprise Inc., which changed its name from Taser International.