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As we've heard in the news lately, Congress is getting ready to vote on whether to sign a free trade agreement with China. Plenty of people are rightfully indignant over the idea of opening up trade with a government whose record of human rights abuses against its own people is appalling.

So, it's pretty discomforting to realize that our own local police condone and practice the very policies that international human rights activists have formally defined as potentially cruel, inhuman and degrading to inmates.

On May 15 -- five days after El Paso County inmate Andrew Spillane died after he was pepper sprayed twice by deputies inside a jail cell -- Amnesty International released a list of conclusions and recommendations that had been reached by the United Nations Committee on Torture during recent negotiations in Geneva.

The committee, convened by the Secretary General of the United Nations, recommended abolishing the use of electroshock stun belts and restraint chairs as methods of restraining inmates.

The Committee on Torture believes that using electroshock stun belts and restraint chairs on prisoners almost invariably leads to treatment or punishment that is considered cruel, inhuman or degrading, which violates the Convention Against Torture that the United States Senate ratified on Oct. 27, 1990.

Of course, plenty of police agencies throughout the United States use such prisoner restraints, claiming they are needed to maintain order in their prisons. El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson uses both devices -- the restraint chair and electroshock stun belts -- in the two jails he oversees.

Last year inmate Michael Lewis died after he had been strapped face down to a similar device called the restraining board. The sheriff initially defended the board, despite the results of the coroner's report which cited the restraint as a contributing factor in Lewis' death.

Anderson replaced the restraint board with the restraint chair in El Paso County jails after the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado successfully sued the sheriff on behalf of several other inmates who had been strapped to the board while incarcerated.

The civil rights organization alleged that prisoners were being strapped for too long on the board without proper supervision, that it was being inappropriately used as punishment, and deputies had taunted prisoners while on the board, encouraging them to urinate and defecate on themselves.

The board's replacement -- the restraint chair -- has also contributed to the death of inmates in many communities, including Pueblo, Salt Lake City, Lansing, Mich., and the state of Minnesota. No one has died as a result of being restrained in the chair in Colorado Springs. But a review of videotapes of prisoners strapped into the device last year showed some were restrained naked and others appeared to be suffering from mental illness.

The other device currently in use in El Paso County -- the stun belt -- is used on prisoners while they are being transported to and from jail, including during their court hearings.

Designed to act as a deterrent to efforts to escape or attack a police officer, the belt is strapped around the inmate's waist. If the inmate makes any sudden moves, the deputy can activate the belt.

The resulting 30-second electroshock has the force to throw prisoners to the ground, completely immobilize them and cause them to lose control of their bladders.

Human rights activists complain that in addition to the pain from electroshock, prisoners who do not attempt escape or act aggressively are subject to the stress of knowing that, even by accident, a deputy could activate the device and inflict pain. The belt cannot immediately be shut off in the case of an accidental activation.

Last year, Amnesty International singled out the El Paso County Sheriff for criticism because his department classified the stun belt as a "Level 1" restraint -- considered the least serious way to restrain a prisoner (by contrast the full-body restraint chair carries the most serious "Level 3" classification).

Responding to the international criticism last year, Sheriff Anderson reclassified the stun belt as a more serious "Level 2" restraint device.

It's unclear whether the sheriff will respond in a similar fashion to the Committee Against Torture's latest recommendations to abolish the very tools he uses in his jails.

In the meantime, the El Paso County Coroner's report has not yet been completed or released with regard to the May 10 death of Spillane, who sheriff's deputies claim was acting out of control when they used the pepper spray on him.

Spillane, who was in custody following an arrest on marijuana-related charges but had not been convicted of any crime, stopped breathing and died a short time later.

Records show that since 1993, more than 70 people in police custody in the United States have died when pepper spray was used on them, and at least three more have died in the past six months.

It sort of makes China seem far, far away.

-- degette@csindy.com

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