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The American Horror of Hooding

“Spit hoods” are torture, and Daniel Prude is only the latest victim.

Rochester Police Department

On March 23, Joe Prude of Rochester, New York, called 911 because his visiting brother, Daniel, had fled his home while experiencing a mental health crisis. When police officers responded, they found Daniel Prude in the street, naked and bleeding. He obeyed their commands to lie on the ground—the temperature was just above freezing, as snow fell—and allowed himself to be handcuffed. The officers placed a “spit hood” over Prude’s head. One officer pressed Prude’s head and gripped the hood, while another kneeled on his back. Within a few minutes, he had stopped breathing.

We know all of this now because, after five months, Prude’s family has finally been able to obtain and publicly release the police video of the incident that led to his death. Prude was later declared brain-dead and, on March 30, taken off life support. But it wasn’t until this Thursday, after the video surfaced and protests erupted, that seven officers were suspended over the incident.

Prude’s death echoes that of two other Americans whom, in recent years, police subjected to a spit hood or mask. There was Dujuan Armstrong, who died after being restrained in Santa Rita Jail, Alameda County, California, in June 2018. He was placed not only in a spit hood but also in a WRAP device, a restraint that binds a person’s legs and arms to prevent movement. The local coroner concluded that the spit hood “contributed to his death” by asphyxiation, along with other factors such as his position and weight. In 2015, police officers in Fairfax County, Virginia, forced a spit mask on Natasha McKenna, in addition to cuffing her hands behind her back, shackling her legs, and connecting a hobble strap between the cuffs and shackles. They finally tasered her four times, leading to her death.

All three of these victims were Black. All of the incidents were captured by police video. And each victim had been subjected to more than one kind of restraining violence or device that made it hard, or impossible, to breathe. At a time of mass protests over police shootings of Black Americans, these hood incidents are only another recurring feature of racist state violence. The use of spit hoods and other hoods to torture and terrorize vulnerable people is a fact and feature of America’s history, as well as its present.

There is a long historical record of authorities—including enslavers, law enforcement, correctional bodies, and institutions of state-sanctioned violence—using hoods, masks, and other devices that cover people’s heads and mouths, to subdue, subjugate, and control, to cause humiliation and physical harm. Enslaved people whose resistance to bondage was deemed too much of a threat to the order were bound with iron muzzles that controlled them through silencing, humiliation, pain, blocked breathing, and food and sleep deprivation. Sometimes, the slavers’ pretext was to protect the enslaved person from themselves. Similar thinking guided the use of hooding at the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, founded in the nineteenth century on Quaker principles of benevolence. Authorities at Eastern argued that the use of isolation and solitary confinement practices, such as hooding inmates when they left their cells, was edifying and humane.

While the wearing of hoods by executioners in the United States wasn’t a widespread practice until after 1972 (when capital punishment resumed after a national moratorium), prisoners condemned to capital punishment have been forcibly hooded for at least three centuries, to silence or subdue them—and to protect the sensibilities of witnesses. During the largest mass execution in U.S. history, the 39 Dakota men and boys sentenced to death for resisting settler colonialism had their faces covered in white muslin; until the moment of death, they sang together through the hoods.

Hoods have also been used as torture devices since at least 1902, when U.S. troops hooded and waterboarded Filipino insurgents during the Philippine-American War. During World War II, Jewish prisoners at the German concentration camp Fort Breendonk, in Belgium, were hooded, beaten, and shackled. In the 1950s, French forces in Algiers tortured hooded women prisoners with beating and electrocution. Through the 1960s to the ’80s, U.S. advisers taught hooding and other torture techniques to militarized police in Brazil, and Argentinian torturers, who soaked the hoods with toxic chemicals to suffocate prisoners, passed the techniques on to their counterparts in Guatemala and Honduras. More recent victims of hooding-as-torture include the prisoners held at Abu Ghraib: The man known as “Hooded Man,” forced to stand on a box with a dark sandbag over his head, came to represent all the injustices of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Given the hood’s use in torture, it is appalling—though perhaps not surprising—to see its widespread use by police departments in America. According to The New York Times, “the use of spit hoods or spit shields is widespread among medics, prison guards and the police, throughout the United States and internationally.” Spit hoods are mesh hoods made of supposedly breathable material. The justification given for their use is to prevent spitting, biting, and injury to detaining officers. This type of restraint has “been involved in at least 10 deaths in police custody since 2001,” but “how much the spit hood contributed to those deaths” remains under debate, the Times reported. In cases such as those of Armstrong, Prude, and McKenna, multiple types of restraints were used, any of which could singularly interfere with critical life functions or contribute to a perfect storm of conditions for asphyxiation.

Not every police department has an official policy on the use of spit hoods These cases show situations where officers can reasonably avoid getting spit on by a “resister,” who is already handcuffed and restrained, by positioning themselves behind the person or wearing protective gear. But spit hoods, along with choke holds, kneeling, and any other tactics that restrict breathing, remain in use, officially sanctioned or not. Tactics like these can routinely make police officers’ bodies more dangerous than their guns, but society only scrutinizes the risk in the wake of a highly publicized death. Police departments (and other organizations that use spit hoods) may ascribe potentially linkable fatalities (and nonfatal injuries or trauma) to the victim’s underlying health conditions or behavior. In some cases, the use of a spit hood may not even be divulged to families or the public.

As the era of Covid-19 has brought a surge in demand to vendors of spit hoods, it’s time to scrutinize the use of these devices and practices. The officers who killed Prude cited their fear of his claims of having the coronavirus to justify their use of the spit hood, but none of the officers appear to have been masked, and spit hoods were in use for years prior to the current pandemic. At any time, the practice of hooding subdues—and diminishes—by controlling the hooded person’s breathing capabilities and sensory experience. This combination of restraint, subjugation, and obstruction of breathing is typical of other controversial techniques employed by police officers. The killing of Eric Garner highlighted the use of choke holds, by which officers apply pressure “on the sides of the neck, and on the arteries to the brain” of a person they want to detain. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd took his final breath as an officer knelt on his neck, an investigation of police records revealed that “three-fifths of those subjected to neck restraints and then rendered unconscious were black.”

Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren said this week that Police Chief La’Ron Singletary had told her that Prude died from “an overdose in police custody” and that he failed to mention a spit hood. A medical examiner ruled Prude’s death as a homicide, though—one resulting from “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” Police in Dujuan Armstrong’s case said they thought he was under the influence of drugs and reported his death as the result of an overdose. However, the coroner declared his cause of death to be asphyxiation from the hood along with other factors. Armstrong’s family had to press authorities for over a year for access to and release of the video. In McKenna’s case, video (released only after authorities decided not to press charges against the officers involved) shows that she, like Prude, was naked at the time. The deputies restraining her wore biohazard gear, plausibly sufficient protection from the dangers of spittle.

“Excited delirium” has become a common official, but not scientifically supported, catchall term for in-custody deaths involving the use of restraining tactics that impede breathing. Police departments and their coroners across the nation peddle the notion that excited delirium, or struggling while being restrained, can cause someone to die suddenly. The Appeal reports that “there have been few documented cases outside of police custody or correctional facilities,” and those cases have been linked to a serial killer whose victims were asphyxiated. It is noteworthy that in addition to being under police control, many of the theorized “excited delirium” victims are Black or other people of color.

The practice of categorizing deaths as “excited delirium” conveniently allows authorities to evade accountability for in-custody fatalities involving tactics that hamper breathing, including spit hoods. Imagine if someone or something cuts off your air supply. Your body’s natural response is to resist being suffocated by vigorously struggling to reposition itself or remove the source of anguish. Your body cannot help doing this. The unsubstantiated theory behind “excited delirium,” which is not a medical diagnosis or term, makes a circular argument that this reflex to fight suffocation—and not the choke hold or the hood or the knee pressing into the neck or back—causes the victim’s death.

“The scene—a Black man, handcuffed and sitting in a street, wearing nothing but a white hood—seemed a shocking combination of physical helplessness and racist imagery from another era,” the Times reported. Unfortunately, there is nothing bygone about this image, this incident, or the racism and institutional violence that fueled it. Our knowledge of this history should inform our outrage over police violence and galvanize efforts to abolish state-sanctioned torture. In the last 10 years, at least 70 people—more than half of them Black—have died pleading to police, “I can’t breathe.” Stop hooding. Stop choke holds. Stop robbing Black people of their right to breathe.