Can you really strangle yourself with a pair of handcuffs?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 1 2007 6:19 PM

Strangled by Handcuffs?

Carol Gotbaum, and the dangers of contortionism.

Handcuffs. Click image to expand.
Can you accidentally strangle yourself with handcuffs?

A New York woman died in police custody at the Phoenix airport Friday after she was handcuffed behind her back and arrested for disorderly conduct. About 10 minutes after leaving the woman in a holding cell, police found her unconscious and with "handcuffs up by her neck area." Investigators guessed that she "tried to manipulate the handcuffs from behind her to the front, got tangled up in the process," and accidentally strangled herself. Could this really have happened?

Yes. Bringing your arms from behind your back over your head is a difficult maneuver, but it can be done—especially by those who are exceedingly slender, limber, or who have a high tolerance for pain. (At 5 feet 7 inches and 105 pounds, it's possible the woman who died in Phoenix was thin enough to carry this off.) But if someone isn't able to complete the entire move and becomes trapped in a strained position, though, suffocation and strangulation could occur.

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According to escape artists, here's how you slip handcuffs from behind over your head (don't try this at home): First, push the left arm as far to the right as possible, or dislocate the shoulder altogether. Rotate the right wrist clockwise within the handcuff until the inside of the wrist faces outward, then bring up the right wrist as if in a bicep curl; the left arm will be tugged upward at the same time. Next, the right arm moves up, scraping up the shoulder blade, until both hands are basically behind the neck and the right elbow points up above your head. Then, tucking your chin into the chest, bring the crook of your right arm over your head. To finish the maneuver, pop the handcuffs around the left forearm, dislocate the left shoulder (if you haven't already), and bring the left arm down in front. (Here's a slow-motion video of the whole thing.) Some real life Gumbys can do this without bending their arms.

If someone is struggling to bring the right arm over, then his head might be shoved into the down position, which can make breathing difficult. If he is able to bring the right arm over, but he can't get his left shoulder twisted around, then the handcuff chains might press into the left side of his neck. There's a greater risk that something can go wrong when the handcuffs aren't double-locked, i.e., prevented from getting tighter on the wrists. In that case, they might constrict at a crucial moment.

It's easier to bring your handcuffed wrists in front of you the other way, by sliding them underneath your feet. Simply shimmy through your arms, butt first, until you can step over the handcuffs with your feet. Long arms and a narrow frame can help. And though you can accidentally pull your arms out of their sockets, you're probably not risking strangulation. During a murder trial in Australia a few years ago, a woman who had been abducted demonstrated to the jury in a couple of seconds how she made her escape by executing this maneuver. *

If you want to get out of a pair of handcuffs, you might try to pick the locks with a pin or squeeze your hands through the restraints. Slim wrists helped this Carolina Panthers cheerleader slip out of her cuffs; those with larger paws might end up breaking a thumb or wrist.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mark Cannon of Cannon's Great Escapes, Jim Hart of the American Jail Association, and Nelson Lugo.

Correction, Oct. 3, 2007: This article originally described an abductee who managed to slip her cuffed hands over her head. But according to this news clip, she used a different maneuver, and slid the handcuffs underneath her legs. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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