Stun Belts

You’d think that any belt worth seven hundred dollars would be studded with diamonds or at least have a solid gold buckle. Not so with this belt. It’s designed to thwart prison escapes—and it really packs a wallop. It’s called a stun belt, and it can jolt a convict into submission with 50,000 volts of electricity. The belt has sparked a debate over the very meaning of crime and punishment. Stun belts are typically used for inmates who leave prison for chain-gang work, prison transfers, or court appearances. The belts can be activated by a guard through a control panel. At the press of a button, the guard can administer an eight-second shock, 50,000 volts, from up to 300 feet away. The shock knocks the prisoner to the ground and may catapult him across a room. The jolt is so severe that it even causes the inmate to lose control of his bladder and bowels, with embarrassing results. Lawmakers and prison officials claim the belt ensures the safety of prison guards, the public, and even prisoners themselves, because it eliminates the need to use lethal force if an inmate gets out of control. But others worry about the potential for abuse, in part because a blast from the belt leaves no telltale wounds on the body. With stun belts, "the prospect of torture is ominously real," editorialized the Roanoke Times and World News. And Roger Rathman of Amnesty International declared, "This belt could allow prisoners to be tortured at the push of a button." The group fears the belts will be misused to "deliberately inflict pain [and] humiliate and degrade prisoners." If inmates are abused, they can expect little sympathy from a public fed up with crime. When a reporter gathered public comments on the stun belt, a remark by Maryland fast-food employee Deborah Steenken was not untypical. "Give [prisoners] public humiliation," she said with a shrug. After all, she shrugged, "they never think twice about committing a crime." If we catch ourselves quietly saying "amen" to comments like Deborah Steenken’s, we need to remember that the Bible draws a distinction between punishment and humiliation. It’s one thing to express moral disapproval of a criminal’s actions and to mete out punishment. It’s quite another to treat him as though he were less than human. In Matthew 25, Jesus says we’ll be judged in part by how we treat those in prison. Jesus identifies Himself with prisoners when He says, "I was in prison, and you came to Me." Christ condemns those who call themselves believers and yet fail to have compassion on people who live behind bars. The fact that a man has committed a crime does not mean he forfeits his God-given dignity. Amnesty International has proposed a national ban on the use of stun belts, similar to bans adopted by many European nations. I support it. Why not write your lawmakers and urge them to get behind legislation that would outlaw the use of these devices. And help your neighbors understand why human dignity is not a luxury reserved for those who reside outside prison gates. Yes, we have to get tough on criminals—both inside and outside of prisons. But we must do it without descending into barbarism.


Chuck Colson


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