Guards Routinely Break Prisoners’ Fingers at Red Onion State Prison
A Valid Restraint Technique or Plain Old Torture?
(The following is the “Inmate Request for Information/Service” filed by Kevin Johnson on November 11, 2010 and the “Staff Response” given by the prison authorities on November 29, 2010, upon which this article is based).
Inmate Request for Information/Service, written by Kevin Johnson:
Mr. Ray: For several years here at Red Onion you have allowed guards to bend prisoners’ fingers backward against the natural bend of the joints as a “control” technique. This technique is used whenever force is used against a prisoner, even merely as a “preventive” measure, when no force is actually needed. Numerous prisoners, myself included, have suffered dislocated or broken fingers/knuckles as a result of this practice. Any sensible person can readily see that such a technique is sadistic and meant to inflict harm on its face, since the finger/knuckle joints are very fragile and it is impossible to measure or control the degree of force used when bending fingers backward, especially under the stress of excitement and when one is resisting (in fact, the very use of the method provokes one to resist almost instinctively in panic and fear and pain of the joints being broken or dislocated). Why do you have your staff use bending one of the body’s most fragile and injury prone joints backwards, except to inflict pain and injury? See attached diagram, which illustrates this technique (Exhibit A).
Staff Response, signed by
No offenders have suffered dislocation or broken fingers or knuckles as a result of this hold.
Some things are just so obvious you don’t need rocket science to figure them out. But those in power will still try and convince you your eyes are lying, your basic sense is failing, and the suffering is just imagination. Routine torture by U.S. officials of poor people of color is a case in point.
I’m going to use the prison setting as an example. Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison in particular.
In her new book, The New Jim Crow1 civil rights attorney and legal scholar Michelle Alexander exposes modern U.S. mass imprisonment, and the so-called Drug War, as the latest phase of ongoing political and racial oppression and containment of New Afrikan (Black) people. She doesn’t, however, talk about the institutionalized sadism, brutality and torture we prisoners suffer when under the guise of prison officials maintaining “security,” which is what I want to touch on here.
Breaking Prisoners’ Fingers—A Control Technique?
I want the reader to look at the illustration attached as Exhibit A. Now ask yourself, under what circumstances could bending a human being’s fingers back against the natural bend of the joints and knuckles be considered “reasonable” preventive force. And usually it is applied against a person already restrained in handcuffs and shackles.
Imagine this finger-bending technique (FBT) being used against you. It’s terrifying, painful and almost guaranteed to cause permanent injury.
Here at Red Onion the FBT is frequently used, and not merely to subdue a struggling prisoner, but whenever a guard even speculates that a prisoner may be about to become disruptive. And “disruptive” can mean anything, or nothing. The guards have absolute discretion to make the call. All the provocation they need is a sarcastic remark, or being in a foul mood, or resentment against a given prisoner. Often, racial resentment is enough in a prison that pits a 98 percent rural white staff against an 85 percent non-white prisoner body.
And how can such a technique be applied with limited or restrained force under the stress and excitement of subduing a struggling person, especially one that suffers mental health problems? Try it. Matter of fact, if you can find a willing partner—preferably someone you can trust not to get too carried away—try it while you’re completely at ease. Your first reflex, like a reaction to having your eyes gouged, will be to become combative, to resist and pull away. These are instinctive and intelligent responses to the pain, and to protect fragile, sensitive, and precious parts of the body—self-preservation.
Ever jammed a finger playing sports? That’s the least amount of pain you’ll feel. And, what’s worse, it’s not a brief experience, like jamming a finger. When guards apply the FBT, they don’t let up! The initial grab for your fingers is done suddenly, without warning and with force. So you don’t have the chance to ball your hands up. The finger bending then continues for minutes at a time. Typically, no less than five minutes.
And when—not if—you resist in response to the shock and pain, they apply more force, often until your fingers touch your wrist. It’s a lose-lose situation. Your options: cry out or suffer silently (both of which eggs them on more), or try and twist away (which increases the risk and extent of injury), or try to fight them off (a highly dubious option, where the victim is typically cuffed behind his back, leg-shackled, and contending with multiple guards—all grabbing at and bending your fingers and worse).
Often, abusive guards initiate the FBT solely to make a prisoner react. To make him appear belligerent or combative, so greater force is then “justified” to “control” him.
In any case, the result is dislocated and/or broken fingers. I’ve had mine dislocated six times, no less, once for committing the grave offense of questioning guards about racially discriminatory practices against us.
Due to permanent ligament damage caused by the FBT, my right thumb now spontaneously dislocates under moderate pressure and impacts. A mild tug pulls it right out of the knuckle socket. It’s also lost about 25 percent range of motion at the middle joint.
Official Denials, Cover-ups and Denied Care
The Red Onion medical staff generally denies and covers up the injuries their colleagues inflict. Hundreds of prisoners have suffered them. Attendant nerve damage is the norm. In many cases, this results in total loss of sensation in parts of the hand.
A few examples are in order.
On October 27, 2005 Nathaniel Wright had the middle bone of his left finger broken completely in half, courtesy of the FBT. For weeks medical staff told him he was fine and to just apply cold compresses to the grotesque swelling. Only after filing numerous complaints and involving outside prisoner advocates, did he finally receive x-rays revealing his injury.
To repair it, the bone had to be re-broken (because it had begun mending with the severed ends misaligned), surgically reset, held bolted together with screws, and a cast applied to immobilize his finger and hand. To cover up their initial cover up, Red Onion medical staff claimed Wright broke his own finger sometime after the October 27th incident.
On November 10, 2007 guards beat a restrained prisoner in the presence of an entire unit of outraged prisoners, eleven of who covered their cell door windows in protest. Teams of riot-armored guards were then assembled to forcibly extract all eleven from their cells. Each prisoner, after being tear-gassed, electrocuted, physically subdued and then manacled, had their fingers bent back and dislocated by the guards. Several lost feeling in their hands and suffered permanent damage.
One prisoner, John Gaskins, whose fingers were broken, endured months of writing complaints for x-rays and treatment. When he finally received x-rays, it was too late to be treated, leaving him with permanent deformities and fingers that now chronically dislocate. This is a typical scenario.
Gaskins was recently released from prison in Virginia and is willing to attest to and show evidence (i.e., his deformed hand) of the brutal FBT. He can be emailed at: email@example.com or phoned at: 443-359-8676.
On November 11, 2010, I wrote Red Onion’s warden, Tracy S. Ray, asking how the FBT could be deemed anything but sadistic torture and calculated to cause pain and injury. He avoided my request, and passed it on to his notoriously corrupt and deceitful investigator, Tony R. Adams. On November 29, 2010 Adams, lying, replied that, “No offenders have suffered dislocation or broken fingers or knuckles as a result of this hold.” (See above “Inmate Request for Information/Service” form filed by Kevin Johnson with the staff response.)
Again, it doesn’t take rocket science to recognize that it’s virtually impossible to use such a technique on delicate joints like those of the fingers and not dislocate or break them. Fingers aren’t pliant like pipe cleaners. They bend in only one direction. And it’s impossible to measure or limit the pressure applied when bending fingers backward, especially when one instinctively resists.
And again, try it yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Despite what those in power might say, I assure you, your eyes, senses and agony won’t deceive you.
Plain Old Torture
I can’t imagine that a victim’s panic and pain under water boarding, genital electroshock, or thumbscrews could be much worse than the FBT. In more openly barbaric and honest times (Europe’s Middle—especially Dark—Ages perhaps) the FBT would’ve been called exactly what it is: plain old torture.
So let’s have done with the hypocrisy of U.S. democracy. If prisons are a microcosm of the larger society that births them, what sort of society is it that needs to mass incarcerate millions of its residents, uses mass imprisonment to oppress and persecute minority nationalities and races of people, and in turn needs to torture them? I’ll tell you what kind—one that still needs to be fundamentally changed.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win! All Power to the People!
1 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness . (The New Press, N.Y., 2010).