The 80,000-Volt Handcuffs That Let Cops Shock Prisoners

The quiet rise of “Stun-Cuffs” give police officers, prison guards, and bailiffs an easy way to electrify people into submission.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

What gives an electric jolt as strong as a typical Tase but is designed for prisoners already in police custody rather than suspects not yet arrested? Wireless “Stun-Cuffs” from Myers Enterprises. “Today’s criminal is more hardened, desperate, and more dangerous than ever,” its imperfectly punctuated brochure warns. “Whether taking a prisoner for a doctor visit, transporting them for trial, interrogations or dealing with a prisoner that is under the influence. They must be controlled.”

Here’s how the devices work: A prisoner’s wrists or ankles are cuffed––and then, if the person holding the transmitter desires, he or she can send tens of thousands of volts of electricity coursing through the prisoner’s body from a distance of up to 100 yards. As the brochure puts it: “A demonstration of this in front of a prisoner and they will know if they are out of compliance the Single Cuff model will drop them.”

All that for $1,500 plus $400 for the transmitter. There’s also a pricier model. Here’s a weirdly eager man testing it out at a National Sheriff’s Association meeting:

The way that the man taking the video laughs as the other man writhes on the ground in uncontrollable spasms and painful screams adeptly captures the part of human nature that leads me to believe that these devices will spread with terrible results.

They’re already used on prisoners in some jurisdictions. The company itself lists some testimonials on its web site. A detention center in San Juan County, New Mexico, demonstrated the device on a prison guard back in 2012. A Missouri sheriff’s department tested a similar device from a different manufacturer in 2013. They too found it extremely amusing to debilitate colleagues with painful shocks. Lots of young men would react similarly, hence my reluctance to let them put devices they approach with jocularity rather than seriousness on people that they disdain.

I am hardly alone in finding stun-cuffs creepy and suggestive of evil––for goodness sakes, Darth Vader seems to have pioneered their use on the Death Star.

Back in the real world, there are a depressing number of news articles about parents arrested for putting shock collars intended for dogs on their children. Of course, no one would equate kids with prisoners acting up in custody. But the stories are narrowly relevant for two reasons: they’re written as though the shocks are self-evidently cruel, though they’re far weaker and less painful than what stun-cuffs deliver; and in at least one instance, a man was arrested for putting a shock collar on his kid that he never used, suggesting that on some level, even law enforcement understands that it isn’t just being shocked that matters in these situations––the burden of knowing that someone has a finger on a button that could deliver a shock at any moment matters too. When these stun-cuffs are preemptively placed on prisoners, those who don’t misbehave will still suffer that psychological trauma; and recall that many prisoners have not yet been convicted of any crime.

Those problems would give pause even if America’s police officers and prison guards were not prone to excessive force and prisoner abuse. In the real world, these devises are bound for a profession where both problems are epidemic. “Here at Myers Enterprises, Inc., we like to say our devices turn bad boys into choir boys,” the company told Police One magazine in what is either a sponsored post or a softball interview with a sponsor. “Once the device has been explained, dry fired, and then applied to the individual, 99.9 percent of the time the prisoner is calm and complies with all orders. This allows officers to be professional in their duties.”

But I cannot believe that a profession regularly seen abusing their Tasers on YouTube will misuse stun-cuffs so seldom as to not be worth discussing, and worry that they could even help turn some prison guards into bad boys. Judges are typically better behaved, but one has already been removed from the bench after ordering a bailiff to shock a defendant during a criminal trial merely to stop him from speaking.

Cruelly, the bailiff complied, as if to confirm the real-world relevance of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment. Its subjects were surprisingly willing to administer substantial shocks to innocent people when so ordered by authority figures, even when able to hear loud screams from their victims as they cried out in ostensible agony.

As Milgram wrote:

The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation... Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Isn’t that a good reason to avoid making it especially easy to zap people?

Even granting that judicial abuses that blatant will probably be unusual and that prisoners are coerced in all sorts of ways that the rest of us aren’t, it also doesn’t escape me that we might all be compliant 99.9 percent of the time if preemptively outfitted with devices that shocked us into submission at the discretion of the state, calling us to fall while possibly urinating or defecating on ourselves.

I am not of the opinion that so outfitting us is therefore a good idea.

At the very least, whether American communities want their prisoners controlled with electrocution devices would seem to be just the sort of question that the public should decide, after democratic debate that airs potential pitfalls and how they might best be avoided. Instead, police agencies––influenced by profit-seeking corporations more than the public––are again quietly adopting significant new policies that they can’t help but know would be controversial if more widely known.