“Leg Irons and Handcuffs”
Prison Reflections from Patrick O’Neill (transcribed and edited by J. Mark Davidson)
March 30, 2021
A Health Concern
On Tuesday, March 15, I was standing in my cubicle talking to my friend Mike and my cubemate Mark. Suddenly, I started feeling very hot and I took off my long-sleeved shirt and hung it up. But I kept feeling hotter and weaker, so I sat down on the seat at the desk in my cube. I started to feel even worse, like I might pass out, so I got on the floor with my back against Mark’s bottom bunk. Mark got me some water and I perked up a little, but was still wavering. Mark noticed my T-shirt was soaked in sweat. Three other guys walked by and noticed I was sick. Mark said I looked pale. Finally, Paul, my friend, said I should go to medical, so I walked to my counselor’s office (Mr. Marshall) and told him.
Medical came with a golf cart to carry me across the compound. By now I was feeling a little better and I was able to walk down the 24 steps and outside to the golf cart. At medical, they hooked up a heart monitor. There were about 4 women RNs and a male nurse. They seemed alarmed, and said I had a heart flutter. They brought a printout of the monitor to a doctor who was somewhere else (I actually never saw the doctor). She or he recommended I be transferred to the hospital. For a while, I was trembling with the shivers. The shaking went on for 10 minutes or more, but I had no pain of any kind and no longer felt sick as if I were going to pass out. When a private ambulance arrived, I had a set of leg irons attached to my ankles. Except for a 20-min. stress test on a treadmill, those leg irons remained on my ankles until I was brought back to Elkton 4 days later. I transferred to the ambulance gurney and was wheeled out of the prison for the 45-or so- minute ride to Trumbull Regional Medical Center.
Handcuffs and Leg Irons
On the journey, I was in handcuffs and leg irons. A guard sat in the back of the ambulance with me. He was armed with a handgun, and said, “If you try to escape, I will shoot you, and it will hurt very much.” I got the impression he said this to every prisoner he escorted to the hospital. From that moment on, I was held under an armed guard and a second guard at all times while in the hospital. Both guards (they were working 8-12 hr. shifts over the 4 days) would be with me at all times. I can’t imagine what all the other people (not staff) thought of me, but I’m sure they never expected that I was a nonviolent peace activist. Back in my room, I was always in chains, never allowed to get out of bed. I was in Rm 402 in the cardiac unit. Once in bed, the guard would use a thick steel chain and padlock to attach my leg irons to the foot of my bed. Another chain and lock were used to attach my left arm to the bed by attaching the chain to the handcuffs. This arrangement made for very uncomfortable sleeping attempts.
Tangled Up in Bed Chains
The guards, some of whom were working overtime for hospital duty, were making close to $50 an hour to “guard me.” All that was required of them was to watch TV, play on their phones and sleep. While I met several guards who treated me with dignity and respect, there were others who wanted nothing to do with me. When I asked a guard to unchain me so I could use the bathroom, he replied,” Do you have to do number 2?” It was expected that I use a plastic hand-held urinal if I had to do No. 1! One of my low points was when I woke up in the middle of the night needing to urinate. Not wanting to wake the guards, I used the plastic urinal. Either I was too sleepy to concentrate or just too tangled up in my bed chains, but when I was done, I realized most of the urine had soaked the bedding and my hospital gown. Rather than create a scene, I decided to try to go back to sleep in a urine-soaked bed. The Federal Bureau of Prisons should not be allowed to chain nonviolent prisoners to their beds. It should be deemed a human rights violation. Elkton FCI is a “low security” prison and the vast majority of the men are nonviolent and represent no threat to escape. In addition, a prisoner charged with escape will likely have years added to his sentence, which is more than enough reason to deter escapes. I have not been able to document even an “attempted” escape from Elkton FCI. The men at Elkton want to do their time and get out; escape is out of the question.
During my hospital stay I had an ultrasound of my heart, another test where I was under a giant machine for 15 minutes that took pictures of my heart. There were also problems. My cardiologist at the hospital, Dr. Woods, who also works for the prison, never received any of the initial test results from the prison when my heart was acting up. The tests showed my heart was fine (except that my sleeping pulse drops under 40, which is what it’s always done – I assume because I’m a runner). Dr. Woods wanted to inject me with a chemical that would artificially cause my heart rate to rise rather than allow me on the treadmill. I refused that test unless I was allowed to actually use the treadmill to get my heart rate above 132 beats. I desperately wanted to have my legs out of the leg irons for a short time and I just saw no reason to have my heart rate chemically raised. Woods agreed to my request, but kept me in the hospital for an extra day. Following the stress test on the treadmill, Woods said the results showed that I had some blockage and I might need a heart catheterization. All this news seemed odd to me since I was walking and running more than 50 miles a week all the time I have been at Elkton! Woods put me under the giant camera for an additional 15 minutes and that re-test showed no heart abnormality. Woods ruled out the catheterization, but he wanted to do yet another test that involved injecting me with dye and going under the giant camera for a third time. Luckily, Woods did get a second opinion from a woman cardiologist who was an expert in some other aspect of the heart. (I had her name, but my 6 pages of personal notes from the hospital were confiscated by a guard and I don’t expect to get them back.) This doctor didn’t want to directly contradict Woods, but she also did not get to see the paperwork from the prison exam (when I was initially seen). It was her hunch that my illness was likely caused by a sudden drop in my blood pressure that she attributed to a new prescription I was recently given for high blood pressure. She seemed confident my heart was working OK. So, I refused the last test, spent a third night chained to my bed, and came back to prison on Friday afternoon 3-18. At one point, a nurse at the hospital said I was going to receive an injection of some drug to keep me from getting blood clots in my legs because I was staying in the bed all the time! There was, of course, no reason for me to be in bed in the first place! And certainly not in chains. I refused the drug.
The practice of chaining “offenders” to hospital beds is not unique to federal prisons. This is a common practice by most – if not all – jails and prisons. At Wake Med, where I work as a volunteer chaplain, I often see police and correctional officers in patients’ rooms. Women who deliver babies while incarcerated have their newborns taken away from them. This practice is ungodly and cruel to both mother and child. To engage in this kind of practice, the jails and prisons must have the cooperation of the hospital administration. Such cruel practices seem to me to be in direct opposition to the Hippocratic Oath, which states, “Do no harm.” Most of the time, when a nurse came into my room, she would kindly ask, “Is everybody Ok?” She was, of course, speaking to me and my captors. Sometimes I would reply: “I’m OK except for these chains on my arm and legs.” Unfortunately, the practice of chaining people to their beds is just normal procedure to hospital staff; it goes on without any question about its cruelty. The worst kind of evil there is is the kind of evil that becomes “normal” in the eyes of otherwise “good” people. These are the hardest kinds of evil to abolish. A heartfelt campaign to abolish this practice would be a great humanitarian undertaking by all of you reading this account.
Back in Quarantine
When I got back to the prison, I was immediately strip-searched and taken to the SHU (Special Housing Unit, better known as solitary confinement). In the SHU, I was strip-searched a second time while locked in a steel cage in handcuffs. (That’s where the guard took away my hospital discharge papers and my 6 pages of notes.) I am now locked in a single cell with one small barred window with cloudy glass so I cannot see the outside world. I was put here straight out of the hospital and the door to my cell has remained locked and unopened for parts of 5 days. My food and “hygiene” (a razor once a week, which is 2 inches long and must be returned because the razor is a potential weapon, toilet paper, 2 inch toothbrush, liquid soap) are slid in through a door slot. My pen is about 4 inches long and made of rubber. I go through ink very quickly! I am allowed one hour of recreation per week; I have not received it yet. I am in solitary ostensibly because of Covid. This is supposed to be a quarantine for 2 weeks. However, the SHU is the prison’s disciplinary unit, so I am being held under the same conditions as someone who punched a guard or inmate (or worse). I’m experiencing the same terrible circumstances as everyone else in the SHU. In the compound, many buildings are closed and have not been used in more than a year because the prison has been locked down. Any one of those buildings could be used as a far more humane place to quarantine. But prisoners have no power to bring change. Everything that happens here is decided by the warden, who is the king of this terrible place. The lockdown means inmates have no visits, no library time, no indoor recreation (very few men go out to “Rec” in the snow and cold with the only option to walk or run), which is very unhealthy, no religious activities or services (the Catholic inmates have had no Mass or Eucharist and this will be the second Easter with no service), no 12-step programs. In my unit (FB or Fox Bravo), there are about 115-120 men in a room with 64 cubicles of bunkbeds. We are all locked in this room 24-7 with constant noise, continuous movement, and no privacy. It is like existing in a giant Ms. Pacman maze full of human beings.
Evil Sacred Cows
Some of the men in this room have been here for more than 10 years, many have 10 years to go! And almost all for charges that warranted placement in a “low security” prison that has cubicles instead of cells. That means the Bureau of Prisons finds all the men in Elkton are low risk for any kind of violence, which begs the question – why are they here? Why didn’t they get compassionate home confinement due to Covid? Why didn’t they get some alternative sentence to years in prison? Answer: because the U.S. Prison-Industrial-Complex is a self-perpetuating institution that employs thousands of people doing unnecessary jobs, such as watching TV in Patrick’s hospital room. The BOP, CIA, and the Pentagon are all evil sacred cows that exist without accountability in the U.S. Empire. Incidentally, I have still not received the Covid vaccine and I turned 65 on March 27.
A Word of Gratitude
I want to express great gratitude to all of you who are keeping Mary and me in your prayers, and a special thanks to 2-time Plowshares activist and retired school teacher Marcia Timmel, who is helping Mary Evelyn with online school so Mary can go to work part-time. And, of course, thanks to the Kings Bay Plowshares support team who have helped us so much as we near our 3rd anniversary of the action, and Steve Dear, Mark Davidson, Erik Johnson, Bill Ofenloch and Mary for all your love and support.