Tasers are not catching on in jails and prisons even as some local police agencies make the Scottsdale-made stun gun their main weapon against unruly crime suspects.
Reasons vary for the difference in Taser use. The Arizona Department of Corrections, which houses about 32,000 inmates, owns 20 Tasers and has no plans to buy more, said Sam Sublett, the department’s security operations administrator.
"We have a big concern about a Taser being taken away from someone and then used against them," Sublett said. "I’ll be doggoned if I let an inmate get a device that can immobilize people and then have another situation like we had in January."
On Jan. 18, two inmates at the Arizona State Prison Complex–Lewis took two detention officers hostage, raping the female officer as they held her for 15 days.
Sublett said inmates were shocked infrequently with the Tasers now in use, though he could not provide the exact number of incidents.
In contrast, police in Chandler, Mesa, Phoenix and other cities now rely heavily on Tasers and use them in place of all other less-than-lethal force options. The weapons are often deployed when an unarmed suspect is resisting arrest or fighting with officers.
Inside the prisons, Tasers are used only at the highest inmate security levels, Sublett said. Even then, they can be applied only after permission is given by a supervisor, who must then witness the action.
The institutional setting provides alternatives to force that police officers on the street don’t always have, he said.
"Inmates are with us in some cases for years," he said. "Relationship -building is important."
Prison supervisors feel that over- equipping detention officers leads to lessauthoritative guards who can’t get an inmate’s attention with verbal commands, he said.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, has purchased hundreds of Tasers for its jail detention officers.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced a costly plan in April to buy a Taser for every deputy and detention officer. The purchases are on hold because of funding problems, but the agency now has 564 Tasers deployed in its five jails, which house more than 9,200 inmates.
However, jail staff used Tasers on just 12 people so far this year, records show. In the same period, sheriff’s deputies who patrol the county with about 300 Tasers — half as many as the jail staff — shocked seven times as many people.
While appropriate in some cases, Tasers are not replacing other force options in jails, said Lt. Paul Chagolla of the sheriff’s office. Over the past 12 months, Taser deployments made up less than 15 percent of all the times guards used force on inmates, he said.
By comparison, Chandler police estimate Tasers are involved in more than 70 percent of all incidents that required some kind of force by officers.
County jail officers still wield older-style handheld electric stun guns and will strap an electric stun belt on some unruly inmates before a court appearance, Chagolla said.
"The preferred thing we use in the custody environment is OC (pepper) spray," he said. "Everybody’s trained in it. It’s been around for a while."
The spray also is good for breaking up fights among large groups of inmates, while the Taser is a one-on-one weapon, Chagolla said.
Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, dismissed ideas that Tasers are anything but the perfect weapon in jails or prisons. Taser sales to correctional facilities are "slower" than to police departments, but that is strictly a marketing problem, he said.
"That’s the same argument the police gave us — ‘We’ve already got a baton,’ " Tuttle said. "Give us enough time, you’ll have that attitude changed 180 degrees."
Lack of money is the only reason Tasers are not standard gear for every jail officer in Pima County, said Lt. Daniel Brown of the county’s detention center. Pima County’s jail, which houses about 1,900 inmates, only has 13 of the stun guns. But restraint chairs, batons, beanbag guns and hand-to-hand fighting all carry more risk than Tasers, he said.
"Ideally, it would be better for personal protection for our officers to have that tool available instantly," Brown said.
Taser reports from Maricopa County show detention officers believe the stun guns are useful. In September, one rebellious inmate butted an officer with his head as he threw punches. Another officer fired a Taser, sending two barbed darts from the gun that delivered 50,000 volts of electricity.
The inmate "fell to floor, screamed in pain," the report states.
Several deaths of inmates have been reported around the country following Taser strikes — including some in jails — though company officials say no deaths have been definitely linked to the device.
Taser firings by Maricopa County sheriff ’s employees resulted in no injuries more serious than a few cuts and bruises, even though two people were shocked 12 times.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Tasers
The sheriff’s office is equipping more detention officers with Tasers. But while East Valley police say Tasers are revolutionizing police work, the devices have been slower to catch on in detention facilities.
From Jan. 1 to Nov. 1
Use in county jails: 12 11 male, 1 female
Use by sheriff’s deputies around the county: 86 79 males, 7 females
22 uses involved 2 or more shocks — In those cases, the average number of shocks was 3.7
19 "touch stuns" (darts not shot) — In those cases, suspects are shocked an average of 1.8 times 3 failures — 2 device malfunctions and 1 failure to hit suspect with both darts 2 "display only" uses — Suspect complied with orders under threat of Taser 3 uses on dogs — 1 dog died after being shot with Taser
SOURCE: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office