The Common Good
March-April 1999

Clean Cruelty

by William F. Schulz | March-April 1999

Disguising brutality in prisons.

"I agree with you that we should not house juveniles with adults in prison," said the caller to a radio talk show on which I had been explaining Amnesty International's recent report on juvenile justice in the United States. "You're right that they're likely to be raped in there and in my opinion rape is too good for them. Instead we should chop off two fingers at their first offense, chop off a hand at the second, and chop off their heads at a third."

I have learned to expect anything on talk radio, but what was remarkable about this caller's comment was not just its bloodthirstiness. What was unusual was that the sentiment had been stated so forthrightly. For while the United States does indeed remain an extraordinarily violent society, we expend a great deal of energy attempting to cloak that violence in the raiment of respectability—the mythos of Americans as civilized, God-fearing people, slow to anger, reluctant to commit aggression. And nowhere is that self-image more pervasive than in the U.S. criminal justice system itself.

Much of the violence sanctioned by the state today in the name of justice is packaged in as antiseptic a form as possible, designed to disguise the extent of the brutality. The growing popularity of lethal injection as the means by which we execute prisoners convicted of capital crimes—it is the method of choice in 32 states, up from five in 1984—reflects a need to sanitize what is, by anyone's count, a gruesome process. Indeed, when Utah executed a death row prisoner by firing squad in 1996 and when Florida's electric chair malfunctioned the next year, inflicting burns on the prisoner and the smell of burning flesh on the witnesses, the public decried not the act of state-sponsored killing itself but the barbarity of the means. People who would blanche at the thought of pulling out a criminal's fingernails or pouring boiling oil over his head have no hesitation at endorsing the extinction of life as long as it is done cleanly and simply.

Or consider supermax prisons in which prisoners are kept in near-total isolation from guards and one another. Some of these prisons are built underground—the perfect place to bury refuse—so that the general public no longer need even be reminded that they exist.

But nothing exemplifies the refinement of brutality more readily than the growing use by law enforcement of electroshock weapons. Stunguns are employed by dozens of correctional systems to control inmates. Electrified dart guns called tasers are the weapons of choice of many police officers trying to subdue unruly suspects. And stunbelts—electrified devices worn around a prisoner's waist that can deliver a 50,000-volt shock for eight seconds at the touch of a button from up to 300 feet away—are used frequently on chain gangs, defendants in courtrooms, and throughout the federal prison system.

AT FIRST BLUSH the advantages to using electroshock weapons seem manifold. They require little direct contact with their subjects, they leave very few marks, and they are presumably less messy or lethal than traditional clubs and guns.

Unfortunately those very advantages are also some of the reasons they are dangerous. Because they can be activated at a distance, often by the slightest of effort, stunbelts tempt officials to apply them capriciously, as a Long Beach, California judge did last fall when she ordered a defendant zapped for talking too much in court.

Because they leave few if any visible marks, even though victims can be shocked repeatedly, electroshock weapons invite far less restraint than a baton that leaves a bruise or a gun that leaves a bullet hole. And whether or not the application of high-voltage weapons has serious medical consequences is still far from clear. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons advises that such weapons not be used on subjects with heart disease—but doesn't test regularly for that condition. A Texas prison guard went into cardiac arrest and died shortly after being shocked with a stun shield. The manufacturer of stunbelts relies for his claims of safety upon tests that were conducted not on humans but on anaesthetized pigs!

The lure of the high-tech pain-provider is that we can have our power and eat it too; we can inflict just as much pain as we like, free from the worry that what we are doing is cruel. But such a charade has paradoxical consequences. For if we disguise our cruelty from ourselves, we are less and less equipped to recognize and control it. The result is even more violence than in less "civilized" days. Not surprisingly, electroshock weapons are now making their way into mainstream quarters in the form of pocket stunguns, electrified umbrellas, and electrified steering wheel clubs designed to give a car thief (or an unsuspecting child) a little extra welcome.

Convicted criminals deserve to be punished; they do not deserve to be brutalized. But if we cloak our cruelty in cleanliness, it is not just criminals who will suffer, for self-deception soils social policies, to say nothing of what it does to the soul. —William F. Schulz

WILLIAM F. SCHULZ is executive director of Amnesty International USA.

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