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Billy Wayne Sinclair has made a name for himself as a prison journalist. But he’s in the news these days because he claims in a lawsuit that commonly used “stun belts,” which discourage prisoner misconduct, violate prisoners’ constitutional rights. Normally such lawsuits get tossed out because prisoners can’t show evidence of any injury. But Sinclair persuaded a Baton Rouge, La., judge, Jewel E. “Duke” Welch, on Feb. 5 that courts may also award damages if constitutional rights are violated. Sinclair v. The State of Louisiana, No. 469,519 (19th JDC Div. N. La.). U.S. prison authorities use the belts during nearly 100,000 inmate trips a year, according to Amnesty International, which is watching the Sinclair case. The belt is wrapped around an inmate’s waist and can deliver a 50,000-volt, eight-second jolt of electricity to the kidney. A guard controls the device from up to 150 feet away. The shock can knock an inmate off his feet and cause loss of bowel control. A number of civil suits claiming that the use of stun belts constitutes cruel and unusual punishment have been filed in 13 states. Typically, the suits have been dismissed because inmate plaintiffs could not show any objective evidence of physical injury. Dennis Kaufman, a spokesman for Stun Tech Inc. of Cleveland, the manufacturer, says that he was unaware of the Sinclair case but says that a number of courts have upheld the device’s use. “I don’t see any constitutionality issues,” he says. “This is a safety valve. What’s the alternative? Shoot him?” Amnesty International says in a 1999 policy statement that the “use of the belt violates international human rights standards applicable to all prisoners, and is open to abuse by officials who are less than scrupulous.” The London-based human rights group says that in the United States, the stun belts are used to save money. Stun Tech Inc. marketing materials emphasize that point. “Very often, one belt system may be purchased for the comparable overtime rate of 24 hours for one officer,” a brochure says. THE HEARING At issue in the Sinclair case is the use of a belt on July 19, 1999, to take Sinclair to a hearing for a civil suit. The rear left tire of the prison van blew on an isolated, rural stretch of highway. Sinclair had to wear the belt for more than nine hours while guards got the tire fixed well enough to return to the prison. Although the belt did not shock him, Sinclair claims in his complaint that he was bruised from wearing the belt for an extended time. In court, he argued that the belt was used on him in violation of state policy and against Stun Tech’s recommendations. He said prison policy calls for the use of a stun belt only when an inmate is an escape risk, which he was not, having received no disciplinary actions in more than two decades. Also, he was placed in the belt despite having a heart condition and was required to wear it longer than the eight hours prescribed by Stun Tech. He argued that he was required to wear the belt “for political, not security, reasons — to appease the continuing and unrelenting demands from my crime victim’s family and friends.” He is seeking $70,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. After an administrative proceeding, Warden Kelly Ward found that Sinclair’s allegations were without merit, according to court records. Ward said that prison policy allows for the use of a stun belt when transporting inmates to court appearances because the device is less visible than leg shackles and handcuffs. CELEBRITY INMATE Sinclair, 56, was sent to death row after a 1966 conviction for the gunshot murder of a popular shopkeeper after a botched armed robbery. His sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972. He has won a number of national journalism awards as co-editor of The Angolite prison magazine. In the 1980s, he was instrumental in blowing the whistle on the sale of prison releases, leading to the conviction of the chairman of the state pardons board. His memoir, “A Life in the Balance,” written with his wife, Jodie Sinclair of Houston, has been well received by critics. He has been imprisoned since he was 18, aside from the five-month period during which he killed the store owner. At the court proceeding, called a request-for-relief hearing, he represented himself. Arguing for the state’s motion for summary judgment, state Asst. Attorney General David G. Sanders told Judge Welch that state and federal statutes [La. R.S. 15:1184e and 42 U.S.C. 1997e(e)] bar an inmate’s recovery for mental anguish when he cannot prove physical injury. If damages aren’t proven, under Louisiana law a civil case must be dismissed. A report said that despite Sinclair’s assertion that the belt had bruised him, medical personnel found no evidence of injury. “Because the plaintiff failed to show damages, the court, therefore, should dismiss this claim,” Sanders said. Sinclair rose to the clank of his ankle shackles. “You can inflict punishment and quite severe injury on an inmate without showing signs of physical injury,” he said. Citing a federal court opinion in Allah v Al-Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247 (3d Cir. 2000), he argued that the court could award damages based solely on a finding that his constitutional rights had been violated. Judge Welch agreed and said that the determination of injury was a fact issue to be weighed at trial. “At any rate, a summary judgment under these circumstances is not appropriate,” Welch said. “They don’t receive many awards for damages,” Sanders said of inmate suits after the hearing. “Generally speaking, if he is successful in his argument, he’ll get injunctive and declaratory relief that would prohibit the use of this particular device by the department.” Sanders said that the legal section of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections will handle the remaining issues. When asked for comment, William Kline, the department’s executive counsel, told his receptionist to relay that “he don’t talk to reporters.” Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder did not respond to calls seeking comment. In the courtroom, under the judge’s collection of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, sat Sinclair’s two guards, who, having left the David Wade Correctional Center before 3 a.m. to make the six-hour trip to Baton Rouge, put up a valiant effort to remain alert during the complex legal arguments. Immediately after the hearing, they took Sinclair from two burly sheriff’s deputies who had watched him in the courthouse and headed back up the narrow country roads to the prison, near the Arkansas border — without fitting a stun belt on him.

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