Tasers are marketed as nonlethal alternatives for law enforcement, but a new investigation shows that stun gun use in U.S. prisons has caused an alarming number of deaths.
Since 2000, at least 104 prisoners died after a corrections officer used a Taser on them, according to a multipart investigation by Reuters. Just two of the 104 victims were armed; a third were in handcuffs or shackles, and many more were already incapacitated or immobilized when the Taser was used.
This was the case for Natasha McKenna, a schizophrenic woman who died in Virginia’s Fairfax County Jail two years ago when a sheriff’s deputy tased her four times. The sheriff’s office released video of the incident, which showed a 130-pound McKenna surrounded by six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, all clad in white biohazard suits and gas masks.
McKenna, flailing and trying to get out of her handcuffs, screams, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me.” The six-person team holds her down, while a lieutenant shocks her with a Taser, each shock sending 50,000 volts coursing through her body. Minutes later, McKenna stopped breathing.
Experts consulted by Reuters about the use of Tasers behind bars echoed what many said when scrutinizing the details of McKenna’s death: that the use of a stun-gun in that context wasn’t necessary. “She wasn’t a threat; she wasn’t going anywhere; she was restrained,” Richard Lichten, a use-of-force expert told the Washington Post in 2015. “It feels excessive, unnecessary, and out of policy.”
Others wondered whether their use in a controlled setting constituted torture. “When you inflict pain, serious pain, for the singular purpose of inflicting pain… what is that?” U.S Justice Department consultant Steve Martin told Reuters. “It meets the definition of the legal standard of excessive force, but it’s also torturous.”
Police Executive Research Forum has a set of guidelines for law enforcement use of Tasers. But as Reuters points out, there are no national standards guiding their use in jails and prisons.
Taser International told Reuters that only 28 people have ever died from their stun guns, and 18 of them were from being struck on the head with the Taser (not from the electric shock). “Taser weapons are the most thoroughly studied and safest force option available to law enforcement,” Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser maker Axon International, told Reuters.
According to a study by Amnesty International, there were more than 500 Taser-related deaths in the United States between 2001 and 2012.