Forty-nine miles southwest of Chicago, in Kendall County, officers at the courthouse use Tasers to control unruly people involved in litigation. Three miles northwest, at the Kendall County Corrections facility, officers do not.
But perhaps, soon, they will.
It used to be rare that correctional officers used Tasers. However, in recent years, the device has become more popular. An analysis by The Chicago Reporter shows that 57 percent of Illinois county jails–”55 of 97–”use Tasers. Of those jails, four–”in Fayette, Kankakee, Lake and Sangamon counties–”are being sued for their use of Tasers, according to a Reporter analysis of a sampling of 97 lawsuits.
William Collins, a corrections law attorney who runs a consulting service and newsletter to help jails and their attorneys comply with the law, said he is troubled because the more the weapon is made available, the greater the chance of abuse.
But officers at jails in Illinois say that they use Tasers because more violent people are being arrested in their counties. That fact has led jail officials to purchase Tasers to reduce injuries and maintain officer and inmate safety.
“It’s very common for law enforcement officers to have an automatic [weapon] on one hip and a Taser on the other,” said David Parrish, a retired jail administrator in Illinois. He said that Taser usage is increasing. “Now we’re seeing that that kind of thing would be expected to carry over to the correctional setting as well.”
Kendall County could become the 56th county jail to adopt Tasers. The county began considering the option after determining the interactions between correctional staff and detainees led to expensive medical bills for the county, said Staff Sergeant Joseph Gillespie.
The county began comparing medical expenditures with the cost to outfit its correctional officers with Tasers, Gillespie said.
A Taser X26, which is used by law enforcement officers, costs $810. Each cartridge, which costs about $20, lasts for one shot. In order to buy Tasers, the county decided it would need to make an initial investment of $49,000. That cost included the price the county would pay to purchase and train its 48 officers to use the equipment.
The county decided that by 2011, the jail will gradually train and implement a plan to use Tasers at the jail, which has a capacity of 203, Gillespie said. Current budget constraints may affect the start date, he added.
The DeKalb County Jail, in northern Illinois, began outfitting its officers with Tasers in 2008 after altercations between officers and inmates. It was a logical decision made by the jail, which experienced a growing number of violent offenders who were being housed in the facilities, said Lieutenant Joyce Klein.
The number of altercations in the county has not decreased since adding Tasers, Klein said. But “unruly inmates” respond faster to officers’ orders when the Tasers are drawn, and the Tasers’ probes pierce their skin, she added. “A person would comply just to get those probes removed because it’s just that uncomfortable to have those probes in your skin,” said Klein, an officer since 1980.
There are many jails that don’t employ Tasers or, if they do, are cautious about how they are used. The 55 Illinois jails with Tasers rarely use them, if ever, officials told the Reporter. They prefer to use other methods to maintain or restore order, such as verbal commands, batons, pepper spray and stun guns.
Other Illinois jails avoid Taser-related lawsuits by restricting their officers’ access to the weapon. In some jails, Tasers are placed in a lock box that can only be opened by authorized personnel. In others, a paper request must be submitted and the supervisor’s permission granted.
On the other hand, there is at least one facility that has issued Tasers to every officer in the building, Collins said. The current opinion of most courts nationally is that a Taser is an acceptable tool to use in a jail under the right circumstances, Collins said.
Taser International, the maker of the devices, says the weapons are nonlethal, but at least 14 Illinois residents since 2001 have died after being shocked by a Taser, including one case at the Sangamon County Jail. The Cook County medical examiner’s office determined that one of those deaths was caused by a Taser.
Amnesty International has asked correctional facilities and law enforcement agencies worldwide to only use Tasers as substitutes for lethal weapons. Additionally, since 2005, the United Nations Convention Against Torture has investigated six countries and uncovered Taser misuse–”including in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.
While some officials believe Tasers are effective, others think that there are other ways to maintain order in jails. “I think verbal commands can still be the thing that you can use in controlling a situation,” Klein said.
Tara García Mathewson, Amalia Oulahan and Kelly Virella helped research this article.