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Controversy ensues after supervisors at NC prisons get TASERs

Since the start of the pilot program, TASERs have been used “sparingly and judiciously” to stop serious assaults

By Ames Alexander
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Supervisors at North Carolina’s maximum security prisons are getting a controversial new tool to break up fights: Tasers.

Those devices, which are designed to immobilize attackers with high-voltage shocks, have been issued to hundreds of supervisors at seven maximum-security prisons and soon will be distributed to those in five more, state prison officials say.

But critics worry that stun guns could prove deadly to inmates with heart problems. A 2012 study, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, found that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest.

And a 2017 investigation by Reuters identified 104 deaths involving Tasers in prisons and jails, nearly all since 2000. Just two of those prisoners were armed, Reuters found. At the time, the news service found, 27 states issued Tasers to staff in state prisons.

Since the start of a pilot program in several North Carolina prisons last year, Tasers have been used to break up 12 assaults, state Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull said.

The Tasers have been used “sparingly, and judiciously” to stop serious assaults, predominantly those involving a weapon, Bull said in an email to the Charlotte Observer.

Tasers “provide safety and security in the close custody prisons,” Bull wrote. “They have shown to be effective in stopping serious, in-progress assaults and provide a measure of deterrence.”

Axon, the company that manufactures the Taser, contends its devices are safe and that they save thousands of lives by helping officers de-escalate dangerous situations.

‘You could potentially kill them’

But Elizabeth Forbes, who heads North Carolina CURE, a group that advocates for inmates, questioned whether officers would know which inmates had heart conditions that could make them vulnerable to death or serious injury if they are shocked.

“There are inmates who have pacemakers. You could potentially kill them. And what if an inmate has an undiagnosed heart condition?” Forbes asked.

John McKenzie agrees. Serving time for rape and other offenses at Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, he said he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in April, after he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

“I think it’s cruel and unusual punishment,” McKenzie told the Observer. “(A shock from a Taser) could be lethal — especially for someone with a bad heart.”

At least one leading civil rights group has expressed concern, too.

Leah Kang, an attorney with the North Carolina ACLU, said state prison inmates have faced harsh conditions since the novel coronavirus pandemic erupted — crowded dorms, no air conditioning and limited access to exercise or time outside the rooms where they sleep. The ACLU has joined other civil rights groups in a lawsuit that seeks the release of inmates who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

“It is deeply troubling that DPS is now investing resources in further militarizing its staff and equipping them with tasers presumably for use against incarcerated people, rather than focusing on managing prison conditions by reducing the population, as the court has ordered and public health experts have advised,” Kang wrote to the Observer.

The rules for using Tasers

The newly issued devices — the Axon TASER X2 — delivers 1,400 volts of electricity, temporarily overriding an attacker’s central nervous system and “limiting muscular control for 5 seconds,” according to a company promotional website. Those who’ve been shocked say the stun guns cause excruciating pain.

Under a recently revised state prison policy, officers must be trained before using the weapons, and can deploy them “to control or deter violent, threatening or aggressive acting offenders; or to defend officers or third parties from an imminent assault.”

Officers must warn targets, “when feasible,” that they are about to use the Taser — and refrain from shocking pregnant inmates, the policy states.

The first round of 525 Tasers was issued to supervisors with the ranks of sergeant and above at seven prisons — Pasquotank, Bertie, Alexander, Marion, Maury, Scotland and Tabor correctional institutions.

In September, Bull said, the devices will go to supervisors at five more prisons — Central Prison, in Raleigh; Eastern Correctional Institution, near Greenville; Foothills Correctional Institution, in Morganton; Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, and Southern Correctional Institution, about 65 miles east of Charlotte.

Staff safety concerns

Nationally, some prison officials have argued that Tasers can save lives. That’s no small concern in North Carolina, where five prison employees were killed in 2017.

In April of that year, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed at Bertie Correctional Institution. Authorities say an inmate set a fire inside a trash can and then beat Callahan to death with the fire extinguisher she had brought to douse the flames.

Six months later, four prison workers were fatally wounded during an escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Inmates inside the prison’s sewing plant stabbed the workers with scissors and beat them with hammers, a prison employee told a 911 dispatcher.

After the attacks, the Observer found that Bertie and Pasquotank — like many other North Carolina prisons — have suffered from persistent staff shortages. Experts said better staffing might have saved the lives of all five workers.

Today, as the threat of COVID-19 continues to loom inside the state prisons, serious staff shortages persist. In July, 15% of prison officer positions were vacant, according to DPS data.

But that figure doesn’t take into account the many officers who weren’t working inside the prisons at the time because they were awaiting certification or taking leaves of absence. When those absences are included, the total “functional vacancy rate” is much higher — 28%, according to state data.

“I know they are desperate for staff,” Forbes said. “But to use a life-threatening weapon like this because there is a shortage of staff is an injustice to staff and inmates.”

Ardis Watkins, who leads the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said she is hearing that violence and staffing problems inside the prisons are getting worse, largely because of the fears surrounding COVID-19. In the latest fatal attack, 37-year-old inmate Mario Salas Organistas was stabbed to death Saturday with a homemade weapon at Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg.

“Anything that keeps things safer would be a valuable idea right now,” Watkins said.

Will Tasers do that?

“I don’t know enough about that to conjecture,” she said.


©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)