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Special Report: Inmate Deaths Reveal ‘torturous’ Use of Tasers
By Peter Eisler, Jason Szep and Charles Levinson
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) – Corporal Matthew Stice pointed his Taser at Martini Smith’s bare chest.
Smith was 20 years old, pregnant and stripped nearly naked, standing in a cell in the Franklin County jail in Columbus, Ohio. She had been detained on charges of stabbing a boyfriend she’d accused of beating her. Stice and a deputy had ordered her to disrobe, take off all jewelry and don a prison gown. But she hadn’t been able to obey one command – remove the silver stud from her tongue.
“Take the tongue ring out,” Deputy Shawnda Arnold said. Smith continued struggling to unscrew the ring, inserting fingers from both hands into her mouth. No luck. Her fingers were numb, she protested: She had been cuffed for six hours with her hands behind her back.
“I will Tase you,” Stice said. The ring was slippery, Smith said, asking for a paper towel. The deputies refused. “I just want to go to sleep,” Smith cried.
Stice warned her again, then fired. The Taser’s electrified darts struck Smith’s chest; she collapsed against the concrete wall and slid to the floor, gasping, arms over her breasts.
“Why did you Tase me?” she moaned. “I wasn’t harming nobody. I can’t just take it out.”
Five days later, Smith had a miscarriage.
“It stays with me like it was yesterday,” Smith said of the Taser’s pain and the memory of her loss of the child. The charges against her in the domestic violence case were dismissed.
The 2009 incident is among hundreds documented by Reuters in which Tasers have been misused or linked to accusations of torture or corporal punishment in U.S. prisons and jails.
Reuters identified 104 deaths involving Tasers behind bars, nearly all since 2000 – 10 percent of a larger universe of more than 1,000 fatal law enforcement encounters in which the weapons were used. Some of the in-custody deaths were deemed “multi-factorial,” with no distinct cause, and some were attributed to pre-existing health problems. But the 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 immobilized when shocked – pinned to the ground or held by officers.
The cases reflect a fundamental challenge of using Tasers in correctional settings: The weapons, 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 be an effective way to stop an assault on a guard or another inmate, veterans of the corrections system 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 jail and prison guards who typically do not carry guns and have few other force options for controlling combative inmates, often in close quarters.
Tasers can “make correctional environments significantly safer for all parties,” said Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Axon Enterprise Inc, which changed its name this year from Taser International. The company hears “consistent feedback that our products are having a significant impact in reducing the number of violent incidents and the number of injuries in correctional settings,” he said.
Axon provides detailed warnings on the risks associated with Tasers, Tuttle added. But it’s up to jail and prison administrators to adopt and enforce policies that ensure the weapons are handled properly.
When Tasers are misused in correctional settings, taxpayers also pay a price: 68 percent of the 104 inmate fatalities identified by Reuters led to wrongful death lawsuits against the county or municipality responsible for the jail. And families or estates of the deceased won payouts in 93 percent of those cases, a far higher success rate than in lawsuits over such deaths outside jails.
The potential for abusing prisoners with Tasers has grown dramatically. Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has exploded from 500,000 to 2.2 million in a tiered confinement system — from highly secured federal and state prisons for convicted felons to often-overcrowded local and county jails mostly holding misdemeanor offenders or people charged but not convicted.
Mindful of the safety and liability risks in prison settings, many larger correctional institutions bar stun guns. The U.S. federal prison system doesn’t use them. Nearly half the nation’s state prison systems don’t either.
Yet Tasers remain widely used in local jails, which house about a third of all American prisoners and whose administrators often struggle to contain systematic abuse of the weapon.
No national standards govern the use of Tasers in jails and prisons. The accreditation standards of the American Correctional Association, the industry’s trade group, do not address the weapons.
When Taser International Inc began shouldering its way into the corrections world in the mid-2000s, it looked like a promising new market at a challenging time for the manufacturer.
Sales of the company’s signature stun gun were flagging. They would fall nearly 30 percent in 2005 amid a spate of lawsuits alleging the weapons were killing people – accusations the company disputed. By that fall, Taser’s stock had tumbled from a 2004 high of $31 per share to just $5 per share.
In 2006, Taser hired Paul Hughes, a barrel-chested ex-Marine, to lead its push into corrections. Hughes, who left Taser in late 2009, said the new market demanded a new pitch. Police saw Tasers as offensive weapons; corrections officials wanted a defensive tool – and one that couldn’t be used against guards if inmates got hold of it.
Taser reshaped its message for prison administrators, hired new staff and sent representatives to corrections trade shows, the company’s regulatory filings show. The company also developed a special accessory for corrections: a patented lanyard that deactivated the Taser if a prisoner wrestled it from a guard.
Taser targeted two potential customers: the federal prison system, which holds some 185,000 inmates in 122 facilities, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which houses about 126,000 inmates in 34 facilities.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons declined. “I am not a huge fan of putting Tasers and batons on our employees, given the risks that are created,” Harley Lappin, then the chief of the Bureau of Prisons, told Congress in July 2009. Lappin, now chief corrections officer at Core Civic Inc, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, declined interview requests.
Eric Young, president of the Council of Prisons Locals, representing 30,000 employees in federal prisons, said when union members asked federal prison officials about getting Tasers, they typically got two responses. “Cops use them on some people, and some people just don’t recover and they die,” Young said. And, “if someone used it inappropriately, they could be sued.”
In 2008, the California Department of Corrections ran a 90-day field test with Taser’s X26 stun gun and a subset of elite officers tasked with field investigations, such as apprehending escapees, department records show.
Taser, Hughes said, sent its top trainer, former Marine special forces martial arts expert Hans Marrero, to train those personnel in close-quarters Taser drills at the state’s notorious Corcoran Prison, until recently home to the late Charles Manson.
Hughes said the 90-day trial showed that Tasers helped to reduce violence and officer injuries. But the state bought just a small batch for the elite unit – a minimal payoff for a big sales effort, said Hughes, who was involved in the transaction. Under California Department of Corrections policy, those officers could not use them inside prison walls, a policy still in effect, said spokesman Bill Sessa.
In 2009, Taser advised that stunning someone who is restrained or handcuffed – a common scenario in correctional settings – could “increase risk of death or serious injury” from falls related to the weapons’ paralyzing effects.
Corrections officials began asking, “Am I putting myself at elevated risk of a lawsuit by using this?’” Hughes said. Ultimately, he said, Taser shifted its focus away from state and federal prisons.
Today, 27 state prison systems use Tasers, a Reuters’ survey of the 50 states found. But most issue the weapons to a small subset of officers in high-risk roles. Only a handful issue them to all officers.
Tasers also are barred by the two largest private prison operators, Core Civic Inc and GEO Group Inc. Both companies declined to comment on their rationale. “Our policy speaks for itself,” said Steve Owen, communications director at Core Civic.
The corrections industry is “hard to break into,” said Axon spokesman Tuttle. Smaller municipal agencies “tend to adopt new technology faster” than the larger state and federal prison systems, he said.
Indeed, the Taser is more prevalent in the nation’s 3,200 or so local and county jails, which hold about 728,000 inmates. Some of those operations are massive. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which holds about 17,000 inmates a day, was an early adopter. Tasers are “an effective tool in helping control violent individuals,” said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.
But most local and county jails are far smaller, often serving rural areas. And the number of inmates can vastly outnumber guards, who often have limited law enforcement training. Among county jails contacted by Reuters, inmate-to-guard ratios ranged as high as 80 to 1.
“Jails are high-intake, high-turnover facilities,” said Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union specializing in prisons. “They are taking in folks who might be intoxicated on alcohol or drugs. They are taking in people in mental health crisis … They are not stable.”
Mixing this population with untrained, Taser-wielding guards can be a dangerous recipe.
Cody Franklin was pinned face-down to the floor of his jail cell last year by three officers, hands cuffed behind his back, when the Taser came out for the last time.
Sergeant Joseph Griffith, of the Ozark, Arkansas, Police Department, stunned Franklin three times, court records show. When the officers got up, Franklin, 20, lay motionless.
The cowboy, who trained and shoed horses with his dad, never regained consciousness.
“They say this is an in-custody death; this is an in-custody murder,” Franklin’s father, Clayton, said in an interview.
Cody Franklin was picked up by a sheriff’s deputy in May 2016 while wandering in and out of the brush along a rural road, waving a stick like a sword. His story of being lost didn’t add up, the deputy reported later, and he seemed like he might be high. The deputy arrested Franklin for “obstructing governmental operations,” a misdemeanor.
He landed in a group cell in the back of the Franklin County jail, a low brick building cited repeatedly by state inspectors for being understaffed and poorly supervised. There already were 25 men in the cell block – three above capacity, records show.
Around midnight, the lone male jailer on duty found that Franklin and other inmates were fighting and requested Ozark police assistance. Franklin was stunned five times with a Taser in the initial struggle to pull him from the cell, briefly losing consciousness as he was restrained. He came to and began kicking as he was dragged, handcuffed, to the empty cell where he was held down as Griffith delivered the final three shocks.
The medical examiner labeled Franklin’s death a homicide, caused by a “perfect storm” of methamphetamine intoxication, physiological stress from fighting with inmates and struggling to breathe with guards on his back, and multiple Taser shocks. The level of meth in his system was consistent with recreational use and below a typical lethal dose, the examiner added.
The county prosecutor declined to charge the officers with criminal misconduct, citing “insufficient evidence” to convince a jury they caused Franklin’s death.
Clayton Franklin filed a wrongful death suit. In court filings, the sheriff and police denied any misconduct. Both offices declined to discuss Franklin’s death, citing the ongoing litigation.
The questions raised by Franklin’s death mirror larger concerns surrounding the use of Tasers in correctional settings, particularly local jails.
Often, “there are no standards for training, good standards, at the local level,” said Jamie Fellner, a former senior counsel at Human Rights Watch and author of studies on use of force behind bars. “You’ve got volatile people coming in and poorly trained staff.”
Police and corrections officers are advised to be re-trained and re-certified on Tasers each year – a guideline set by the manufacturer, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Police Executive Research Forum. PERF says training should stress that cumulative shocks of more than 15 seconds may increase risks of injury or death, and that officers should avoid using restraint positions that impair the breathing of someone who’s been stunned.
The guidelines also advise officers to avoid resorting to Tasers for “pain compliance” – a technique aimed at forcing people to obey orders through a jolt of often-searing agony. Such uses “may have limited effectiveness, and, when used repeatedly, may even exacerbate the situation by inducing rage in the subject,” the guidelines say.
Tasers fire two darts connected to the stun gun by thin wires. When the darts hit a target, a pulsed current triggers a paralyzing neuromuscular response that gives officers several seconds to restrain the subject. The gun can also be pressed directly against the body – the “drive stun” mode – causing intense pain, but without the darts’ paralyzing effects.
Pain compliance has been a source of controversy in the courts. In January 2016, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, covering five eastern states, prohibited using Tasers for pain compliance in the absence of an “immediate danger” to the officer.
In Cody Franklin’s case, the officer who delivered the final three shocks – totaling 17 seconds – hadn’t been re-certified in Taser training in more than four years, records show. The officer who stunned Franklin five times earlier that night had not been recertified in 20 months.
The U.S. Constitution offers protections for prisoners that can make use of the Taser difficult to justify, say corrections industry professionals. The Eighth Amendment guarantees citizens freedom from “cruel and unusual” punishments, while the Fourteenth Amendment provides the due process right to be free of undue bodily harm at the hands of state actors.
Pain compliance is “almost always discouraged,” said Axon’s Tuttle. Exceptions include using a “drive stun” to escape an attacker’s grasp.
Courts generally see Tasers as reasonable for controlling inmates who actively resist, such as violently thrashing to avoid being handcuffed, and they almost never question the weapons’ use if resistance poses an imminent physical threat to others.
But once an inmate is pinned to the floor, there’s little need for additional shocks, said Martin, the DOJ consultant.
A Taser in “drive stun” mode should have “very, very limited” use behind bars because it’s designed to inflict pain rather than to incapacitate, Martin said.
Yet among the 104 cases Reuters identified, only 18 occurred in the midst of a physical struggle that threatened to inflict serious injury on a guard or other inmate. Among the 70 cases in which detailed information was available from court records, video footage, police reports or media accounts, just 21 involved an inmate not already immobilized.
Veda Carter turned to the courts after county jail guards repeatedly stunned her mentally ill son Corey, who died.
“When you combine a Taser and a death, in a jail, and there’s video, that’s a case I’ll take,” said Spencer Bryan, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, lawyer who successfully sued McCurtain County officials on Carter’s behalf.
Deaths involving Tasers behind bars are more likely to result in lawsuits and public payouts than cases outside the prison system, Reuters found.
In all cases nationwide in which people died after sustaining Taser shocks from police on the street, just over 40 percent have resulted in lawsuits, and the plaintiffs received government payouts in nearly two-thirds of resolved cases. Of the 104 jail deaths, nearly 70 percent led to lawsuits, and plaintiffs received payouts in 93 percent of the resolved cases.
“There are so many things that corrections officers can use to control an inmate short of a Taser, that if you’re in a correctional facility and you’re having to use a Taser, you’re doing something wrong,” Bryan said, citing other methods including pepper spray.
Something went terribly wrong the February 2015 evening Corey Carter refused the command to change into prison garb.
Carter was a local basketball star in Valliant, his town in rural southeast Oklahoma. He played in college and had an offer to go pro in Israel, his family said. But his career was derailed by a diagnosis of late-onset schizophrenia. Drug use and legal troubles followed.
His struggles with the disease were well known to local police. Carter, 40, was arrested at a friend’s house after a neighbor saw him behaving erratically holding a shotgun. The arresting officer, who had coached Corey’s Little League team years earlier and watched his struggle with mental illness, kept him calm as he took him into custody.
There were no problems when Carter first got to the county jail, where his mental illness was noted on intake forms. Nearly four hours of video show him sitting calmly in a restraint chair. Then six officers escorted Carter into a side room off camera to change his clothes.
When he refused the jailers’ orders to undress, they wrestled him to the ground. One, a former wrestler, wrapped his arms around Carter’s neck, according to testimony from the jailers cited in the family’s lawsuit. Another stunned him four times in quick succession with a Taser, for a total of 22 seconds, court records show.
One jailer later testified that Carter tried to push the officers away as they wrestled him to the ground, but that he did not swing, according to deposition accounts cited by Carter’s lawyers.
Assistant jail administrator Russ Miller said Carter had a history of combative behavior and physically resisted officers the night he was killed. The county district attorney, Mark Matloff, declined to prosecute the jail guards, saying they did nothing wrong.
The medical examiner cited the Taser shocks as one of a number of “significant conditions” present in Carter’s death. The official cause of death was “anoxic encephalopathy,” the cut-off of oxygen to the brain.
As the lawsuit neared trial, the Taser shocks emerged as a central issue.
The weapon’s memory showed it had been used four times on Carter for a total of 22 seconds – in excess of the 15-second guideline endorsed by the Police Executive Research Forum. The McCurtain County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment.
The county settled last September for $200,000.
Other in-custody cases have raised questions on a larger scale.
San Bernardino County paid $2.8 million this year to nearly 40 current and former inmates to settle a series of lawsuits that included allegations Tasers were regularly used for torture at the county’s West Valley Detention Center from 2009-2014.
The suits alleged an array of abuses at the 3,347-bed jail, one of California’s largest, including guards stunning inmates in the genitals. Inmate John Hanson testified he was shocked nearly five times a day from February to March 2014 in “surprise attacks” as he delivered meals to inmates. Deputies were “truly enjoying the control and affliction of pain,” he said.
Seven deputies lost their jobs, others have been re-trained, and more than 350 cameras have been added at the jail, the sheriff’s department said.
CHALLENGING INMATES, LITTLE TRAINING
In Missouri, the state attorney general is investigating a May 5 incident in which Mississippi County sheriff’s deputies and jail guards stormed the cell of Tory Sanders, a mentally ill inmate who refused to leave his cell after a detention on a misdemeanor warrant. Sanders was stunned three times with a Taser and died soon after.
“Tasers sound like a wonderful tool,” said acting Mississippi County Sheriff Brandon Caid. “It’s portrayed to law enforcement as 99.99 percent harmless.”
Yet in Mississippi County, the sort of advanced training that might have allowed jail personnel to remove Sanders without stunning him hasn’t been provided since 2003, said Mike Borders, the deputy in charge of Taser training for the county.
In Franklin County, Ohio, nine inmates – including Martini Smith, the young woman who lost her baby after being shocked with a Taser – filed lawsuits against the county. They alleged guards used Tasers at least 180 times from January 2008 to May 2010, often in “callous and sadistic” ways “to inflict pain, fear, corporal punishment and humiliation” on prisoners posing “no threat.”
From her living room in Columbus, Smith recalled how the Taser shocks made her chest feel on fire. “You can’t trust the people that are supposed to protect you,” she said.
In its own internal reviews, the sheriff’s office found no wrongdoing by guards and said the Taser use did not constitute excessive force. Officials in Franklin County declined comment.
The U.S. Department of Justice intervened on the inmates’ behalf and, in 2011, Franklin County settled. The county agreed to pay eight of the nine inmates $102,250 total. Smith, who says she was homeless at the time, received $27,500.
The county also agreed to expand staff training and adopt new policies barring Taser use on prisoners who pose no reasonable threat, are not forcefully resisting, or are “limp or prone.”
Today, the jail, forced by a court-ordered settlement to use Tasers only in “constitutionally appropriate” circumstances, hardly uses them at all, Reuters found.
Taser deployments against inmates at Franklin County’s two jails declined from an average of one per week from 2008-2010 to one a month in 2011, the year of the settlement, and one a quarter in 2014, county records show.
In 2015, there were three deployments.
In 2016, just one.
But even as the county uses stun guns less often, officers are struggling to use them correctly.
Two of the three inmates stunned in 2015, for instance, appeared to pose no serious physical threat to guards when shocked, said DOJ consultant Martin, who was hired as an expert for the plaintiffs in the Franklin County lawsuit. He reviewed videos of recent Taser incidents at the facility obtained by Reuters.
In one incident, an officer is captured on video stunning an inmate already pinned to the floor by guards. In another, guards are seen piling onto an inmate, holding him down and throwing punches – and then shocking him with a Taser.
Franklin County deemed Taser use in both cases “justified,” internal reports show.
Martin, a former corrections officer now overseeing reforms at Rikers Island jail in New York, disagreed. “That would be improper use,” he said of both incidents.
“Of the hundreds and hundreds of Taser incidents I’ve reviewed over the years in jails and prisons,” he said, “I can count on one hand when it was used appropriately.”
(Additional reporting by Grant Smith, Linda So and Paula Seligson. Editing by Ronnie Greene)
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