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TASERs in prison: A good idea?

Corrections officers debated the use of TASERs in jail at the ACA summer conference

By Erin Hicks
CorrectionsOne Associate Editor

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The TASER debate is not new to the corrections field. On one hand, the use of a TASER seems like a good idea. If you have a guy double your size barreling at you, hitting him with a stick doesn't seem like a particularly viable option.

On the other hand, TASER opponents say a CO using the weapon is not the same as a police officer using one. The environment is more contained for COs, and if an inmate runs, they are often stopped by four walls, and then a fence. Sometimes a stun fence. So is a TASER really necessary?

Four panelists met to debate the use of TASERs in a correctional setting at the American Correctional Association's summer conference in Kissimmee, Fla. The panel was held as a mock Town Hall Debate, with two on each side debating either for or against the use of TASERs in prisons. The moderator made sure to emphasize the views expressed by each of the speakers wasn't necessarily their personal view — it was merely used to express one side of the debate.

After you read the summary of the debate, tell us in the comments below how you would have voted had you been in this town hall meeting.

Cole Carter, J.D., Assistant General Counsel from the Corrections Corporation of America spoke against the use of TASERs, though he told attendees his views weren't necessarily reflective of his true beliefs.

He said TASERs are not non-lethal, since he said there have been more than 14 documented cases of TASER deaths. He said incidents of death approximate to use suggests they are more lethal than batons, OC spray or rubber bullets. "People will get stung more than once, and repeated deployments are proven to increase risk," he said.

He mentioned getting TASERed more than once has been proven by studies to "break down skin tissue," which may increase heart risks. And multiple tasings means the energy is "understated by manufacturer" according to a study and therefore could lead to death or injury since those being TASERed are getting more than the "recommended dosage."

Carter also mentioned safety tests that may be done in a prison are conducted on officers — people who are healthy and calm. "In real life, the target of a TASER is not mentally or physically sound. Any health problems or medications can pose a risk to the inmate," he said.

"Some say you know about prisoners that come in a protected environment, and that makes a CO's use of a TASER safer than a police officer's on the street. But what if an inmate is concealing drugs, or not revealing contraband that could have come into the population? That can make someone more vulnerable," he said.

Others said the use of a TASER has the potential to save the lives of staff. Don Bjoring, M.A, retired Orange County, California corrections officer argued on behalf of the use of TASERs in a corrections facility.

"We can do better in jails/prisons than cops because we have more surveillance and our policies can be written to a degree that a police officer's can't be because they don't have knowledge we have about the population," he said.

"If you do it right, you can save a great deal of worker's compensations claims, injury to staff, and cut down on incidents of inmates being injured and treated at hospital where they will file a lawsuit."

He said that he wouldn't advocate the TASERing of an inmate multiple times. But when done correctly, he says a TASER can be an effective tool.

James Bray, Ph.D., former debate coach at Florida State University mentioned two cases where the courts upheld that the use of TASER was the unnecessary use of force.

"There's no constitutional violation, no deprivation of rights because no court has held that the use of a TASER is excessive force," he said. "Granted you abuse it and shoot someone 11 times, then that is in fact, excessive force. But that is not using a TASER –that is one bad time.

"A TASER is not excessive force. It's never been demonstrated to kill anyone. So at that point, let's let the officers who have to make difficult decisions in split seconds do their jobs," he said.

The panel also noted that a great deal of research involving the use of a TASER involves police on the streets rather than specifically in a CO setting.

They also said there is a general lacking of studies surrounding how many lives TASERs have saved. One reason for that, the panel agreed, is that is impossible to say what the CO would have done had they not used the TASER, so it is scientifically hard to prove the TASER was the life- saving factor.

Readers, now that you've heard both sides of the debate, what do you think? Tell us if you are for or against the use of TASERs in a facility in the comments below.

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