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In the Margins

The Pains I've Endured Inside Police Vans and Prison Buses

I estimate that I've spent more than 100 hours in handcuffs being shuttled from prison to prison. I've seen a lot of things on those trips.
Inmates are loaded onto a bus in Oklahoma. Photo by AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

It has been proposed by Baltimore city attorney Marilyn Mosby that Freddie Gray "suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet, and unrestrained inside of the BPD [Baltimore Police Department] wagon." I've had my share of trips in police custody, although they weren't exactly "rough rides," as they're called in Baltimore, since my confinement wasn't in the immediate aftermath of the chaos and terror of arrest but in the institutionalized molasses that state prisoners travel through between facilities. I've been transported by the New York State Department of Corrections (DOC) between 12 of them, and I've been in about as many paddy wagons, though the trips were generally much shorter and far less violent than Gray's.


After all, I never rode a paddy wagon while black. On the roughest rides I took, I wasn't of any race at all—we were just cargo, little more than our ID numbers. We even had to prove we knew them by heart to the sergeant checking identities on our way through the gates.

I was thrown into a van once as well, with my hands mercifully cuffed in front of my torso and not behind—which is reportedly reserved for "troublemakers" like perps who make a run for it. I could not stand up. At the time I was mostly muscle, agile and young, and yet I did not return to bipedalism until I swallowed my pride and accepted a hand to get up—the same hand that introduced me to the floor.

Nothing personal.

Over the ten years and three months I was a prisoner, convicted of five armed robberies committed in the throes of heroin addiction, riding buses or vans from one joint to another was a generally brutal process. The shackles were hard on everyone, but it was just another feature of the system. We were only numbers, anyway.

You get what you pay for when the ticket is free.

The bruises inflicted by the van I had a ride in were evenly dispersed, not grouped on any single patch of flesh. Afterward, I usually looked as if the four winds had beaten me. The cop who lifted me thought nothing of it, because he saw it happen every day. But my torso took a week to heal. Did I mention that a van ride might have felt like an hour but was actually no more than 60 seconds? Do you think you'd be able to remain upright, even while shackled, in a moving vehicle? Did skateboarding, surfing, or the subway leave you with the balance of a god? Well, just try it on your own floor: Lie down and get up without using your hands. You won't succeed easily unless you hit on the experienced prisoners' method, and by then you'll have broken quite the sweat.


Paddy wagons' insides are like the insides of refrigerators—featureless containers designed for the impersonal storage of meat.

I'm no ballerina and had to be shown the trick by old cons: Use your forehead as the missing point of leverage and push yourself into a crouch.

If the paddy wagon Freddy Gray suffered in was anything like the several I've graced with my own presence, the inside is simple steel. That makes it easier to hose off the blood, vomit, spit, and other fluids coaxed from the bodies of perps by violence. There can't be any crevices or cushions where something might get concealed, either. Unless you manage to swallow the contraband chemical, weapon, or other swag that made it past the initial frisking, it's just more evidence against you when you reach your destination, where you will be welcomed by a strip frisk.

Paddy wagons' insides are like the insides of refrigerators—featureless containers designed for the impersonal storage of meat. The only concession law enforcement vehicles generally offer their passengers is rounded edges and corners where steel planes meet. (The Baltimore Police Department had recently instituted new rules on securing prisoners with seat belts inside paddy wagons, rules the officers who detained Gray did not follow.) Safety is important, as accidents can cost a lot in lawsuits. The state is theoretically responsible for the welfare of a person as soon as they're restrained, but there are other reasons to round corners. Paddy wagons, often the first step of a journey that might last forever, are not happy places. Suicide attempts are stymied by a lack of right angles.


Justice must be served.

I estimate that I've clocked more than a hundred hours in cuffs, a.k.a. "bracelets." No one rushes when inmates are in transit. Prisoners are in no hurry to get to another cell, and since the almost entirely hypothetical dangers of transportation grant guards "hazard pay"—which I've overheard amounts to one and a half times the regular rate—they take their sweet time as well. The next time you see a couple of prison guards having a leisurely lunch inside a highway rest stop on a cold winter's day, remember that there's probably a bus full of shackled, shivering prisoners counting the seconds until they finish and the heat comes back on. In the summer, they swelter until the air conditioning returns.

You might have guessed that the windows don't open.

After all, if urinating with a man shackled to you is embarrassing but possible, defecating is downright traumatic.

The trip north from the reception prison called Downstate, an hour up the Hudson River from New York City to the cluster of maxes, mediums, and special housing units (a.k.a. boxes) in Malone County, is not unlike the drive to the Canadian border. It takes about 14 hours, and I've made it six times. The distance is in the hundreds of miles, and the Department of Corrections is not risking a speeding ticket by any means.

Those trips are some of the worst days of a convict's incarceration. For one thing, the vehicles—often old buses—do not inspire tremendous confidence. What appeared to be a second life for passenger buses was deemed questionable in the prison yard, but I wondered about the safety aspect of such a deal. Wasn't it dangerous to use old buses? Would they risk it to save money? Some of my suspicions were confirmed most vividly on one occasion, when a DOC driver who had changed careers a while back expressed delight to be back at the wheel of his old favorite. He made everyone admire the obscene doodle he'd carved into the plastic when he drove for a passenger line 20 years earlier. The lascivious (but well-endowed) stick figures did not bother me as much as the bus's suspension.


Our keepers didn't mind as much, since they had their padded wallets to sit on.

Luckily, the bus windows were generally already tinted, preventing highway passersby from seeing inside. The soft thrones that presumably filled the vehicle in its former life had usually been torn out, with many more plastic seats crammed in. There was a reinforced barrier between the passengers and the driver, and a cage in the rear for the gunman. No firearms are permitted inside any prison, lest a felon get hold of one and take hostages, so the weapons are issued from an armory outside the front gate. This pillbox in the back of the bus puts all of the cargo in range, but the only door to it opens from outside. The toilet, on the other hand, has no door at all.

But most of us just wanted our cuffs loosened. Of course, we didn't know the medical term Cheiralgia paresthetica, a neuropathy of the hand which, acccording to the Journal of Hand Surgery, is caused by trauma to the radial nerve. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, burning, or pain; it can result from excessively tight handcuffs, as the medical literature has established, but said tightness is up to the officer's discretion. (Incarcerated women won the right to give birth uncuffed only a few years ago in New York State, though that call still seems to often be left to the discretion of officers.)

Upstate, those who needed to carried a scalpel in one nostril, ready to snort down to a chained hand.


Even on the same DOC bus, the conditions of our wrists varied wildly. I typically had painfully chafed wrists after one of those epic bus rides, injuries that lasted a day. And my cuffs were rarely that tight—nothing was said, but I knew this was a reward for my white skin. I've seen what happens to hands after a day in cuffs that were deliberately tightened. They swelled into perverse balloons, no longer black but blue.

As abrasive as the steel cuffs were, the black box was worse. It's a steel attachment covering the chain between the two cuffs. Then it's fiendishly padlocked to a body chain circling the torso. This ghoulish getup left one only a six-inch range of hand movement. For some reason it was endlessly repeated that a prisoner had invented this evil, immobilizing box. Every trip I took included a discussion of this treachery, though no one knew where or when this Judas-convict built the thing. The internet has confirmed that the rumor is known to prisoners nationwide, but not the identity of the traitor. (In fact, a magician named Steve "the Dark Master of Escape" Santini claims to have invented it.) Meanwhile, one prominent handcuff manufacturer recently celebrated the centenary of their product, capitalizing with plenty of sales promotions.

Who says crime doesn't pay?

The leg shackling left one limb free. This was no nicety—my left was chained to some random prisoner's right, or vice versa. The chain between us was short, and getting up stairs required a synchronous dance that was hard on the less-than-graceful. Also, someone had to lead, and the implied hierarchy was a challenge. Our early mornings began with a shuffling and counting that everyone did to avoid partnering with a madman or a stinky. It was the sort of exercise in behavior modeling, game theory, and logic that men who quit school at ten because "it was stupid" managed to handle instinctively. The crazies all ended up shackled to the stinkies, and somehow racial segregation was also preserved. But that did not ensure tranquility.


As much as I suffered, there were times when I was grateful for the limitations shackling imposed. Enemies often met on the buses, since they stopped at every special housing unit to pick up those who just finished solitary confinement terms. And those not coming from a box were armed. On Rikers Island, the trick was a razor in an apple. Upstate, those who needed to carried a scalpel in one nostril, ready to snort down to a chained hand. This ended poorly for an acquaintance who sucked a surgical blade into his lung. He reasoned that it had tape around it, and reporting this at the clinic would mean a year in the box for possession of a weapon.

The last time I saw him he was alive and joining a prison baseball team.

Lunch was always bologna, which was green in a certain light.

Other ways of settling feuds were kick fights, which were hardest on the hostage shackled to a kicker. And plenty of spit flew threw the air of those buses. Lunch was always bologna, which was green in a certain light. To eat it, your mouth had to reach your hands; hunchbacks were naturals. But the most experienced travelers of the DOC line didn't eat at all.

After all, if urinating with a man shackled to you is embarrassing but possible, defecating is downright traumatic. Your partner's presence is bad enough, but when the time comes to wipe, the extent of your disaster reveals itself. The torso chain attached to the black box doesn't give you anywhere near the range of motion necessary to reach your goal. I saw a heavy guy unable to hold it anymore go take his dump across from the gunman. His partner shut his eyes and went to a happy place. When the fat man was relieved, he asked the cop to undo a hand so he could wipe. Request denied. That was strictly forbidden, even though toilet paper was available. The poor man asked the cop what he was supposed to do.

"Your partner there will have to help you out."

But that was where the partner drew the line. The rest of the ride was rough for all of us.

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