Breaking Prisoners’ Fingers at Red Onion State Prison: Restraint Technique or Plain Old Torture? (September 12, 2011)

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 Crow,1 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 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 band 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 prisoners 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% rural white staff against an 85% 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 who 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 at, 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 finder playing sports?  That’s the least amount of pain you’ll fell.  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 5 minutes.

And when—not if—you resist in response to the shock and pain, they apply more force often until your fingers touch the back of your wrist.  It’s a lose-lost 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 the knuckle socket.  It’s also lost about 25% range of motion at the middle joint.

Official Denials, Cover-ups and Denied Care

Red Onion medical staff generally deny and cover 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 lift middle finger broken completely in half—courtesy of the FBT.  For weeks medical staff told him he was fine, 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 rebroken (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 27thincident.

On November 10, 2007 guards beat a restrained prisoner in presence of an entire unit of outraged prisoners, eleven of whom 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:johngaskins[at]hotmail[dot]com.

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, 2011 Adams lyingly replied that, “No offenders have suffered dislocation or broken fingers or knuckles as a result of this hold.” (See attached).

Again, it doesn’t take rocket science to recognize that it’s virtually impossible to use such a technique on delicate joins like those of the fingers, and not dislocate or break them.  Fingers aren’t pliant like pipecleaners.  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 waterboarding, genital electro-shock, 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 press 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 changes.

Dare to struggle Dare to win!
All Power to the People!

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  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, NY: 2010). []

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