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In mask, an echo from the dark ages

The mask worn by alleged cop killer Esteban Carpio at his arraignment hearing Monday in a Providence, R.I., courtroom wore a polyurethane mask with air holes at the nose, chin and mouth, secured around his ears with adjustable elastic -- the "spit shield," "biter mask," or "protection mask."
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sometimes an image arrests us.

It halts us mid-word, mid-chew, mid-just-about-to-do-something-else, and presents a fixed psychic requirement: This is a picture of a man in a mask, and you recognize right away that you have to go deeper, know more.

Consider the photograph of 26-year-old Esteban Carpio, an alleged cop killer, at his arraignment hearing Monday in a Providence, R.I., courtroom. Look past his eyes, dark circles in a slit of cut and swollen tissue, injuries the Rhode Island Department of Corrections says he sustained after falling during an escape attempt and resisting arrest. Do not dwell on the attendant drama: his mother, Yvonne Carpio, overwrought, crying police brutality and being led from the courtroom. Do not dwell on whom you believe, or even if you care.

Instead wrap your mind around the polyurethane mask with air holes at the nose, chin and mouth, secured around his ears with adjustable elastic -- the "spit shield," "biter mask," or "protection mask." It can have several names.

But consider the device.

'Kind of Jason-y'
It takes a few moments for your mind to self-Google it, bypassing more benign markers for darker frames of reference: Hannibal Lecter, "The Man in the Iron Mask," faceless things, monsters from the id.

"It does look kind of Jason-y," says Loretta Ahrens, an office manager for Ripp Restraints, the mask's Orange City, Fla., manufacturer, in a reference to the serial killer from the "Friday the 13th" horror films. The mask -- which Ripp officially calls a protection mask -- is a stand-in, because what is behind the mask can be far worse.

Consider the questions: Which came first, a person so bad we had to invent the inimical devices to restrain him, or an object so repellent we had to invent a person inhuman enough to fill it out?

Does an alleged cop killer fit that bill? Which bill?

If the mask is dug up centuries from now, what will anthropologists say about our artifacts of restraint? A spokesman for the Providence Police Department wouldn't comment on the Carpio case, but in a statement yesterday, the department announced that a joint review will be conducted by the FBI, the Rhode Island State Police and the Providence Police of what happened to Carpio while in police custody.

Suspect seen as dangerous
Carpio is accused of killing Providence Police Detective James L. Allen on April 17. Allen was questioning Carpio at police headquarters about a stabbing that happened a week earlier. Carpio, police say, grabbed Allen's gun, shot him and jumped from the third-story window. Officers then chased him down the street and apprehended him.

He showed up in court the next day wearing the mask.

Joy Fox, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, says their department has used the mask only about "10 times in 10 years." The sheriff's department and corrections department jointly decided to put the mask on Carpio, she says, because his face was bleeding and "oozing" and he could possibly try to spit on officers. "There were concerns he would become combative," Fox says, and the department decided to take "maximum precautions and place him in the spit shield."

Mavis Dezulovich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. marshal's office, which transports defendants to and from D.C. Superior Court, says marshals are not directed to use that type of mask. "Everybody has seen them and is aware they exist," she says. "If they felt they had to use something like that, they could, but it is not standard issue."

If an arrestee were ill or bleeding in the courthouse, they'd be transported to the hospital by the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, which doesn't use the masks, according to spokeswoman Kathryn Friedman, who says she's never seen anything like it.

Manufacturers of police and protective gear say the masks have been around for at least a decade, used when corrections officers feared possible infection from HIV or other illnesses.

"It's been popular for several years," says Ahrens, the Ripp Restraints office manager. Since Monday, when Carpio's masked image aired nationally, she has fielded calls, faxed information and taken several orders for the device from small police departments. The Jacksonville Police Department will receive a big order, she says, but that was already in the works. And Ripp Restraints expects about 10,000 of the devices to be ready for shipment soon.

Spit shield
But aren't some spit shields clear? Can they protect officers but still show an accused criminal, full face?

Manufacturers of similar devices say the only relevant question to consider is functionality: "It's not a an extreme device," says Dave Dombroski, a training manager for the ATD-American Co., which makes a nearly identical protection mask.

Dombroski says the masks are commonly used when transporting individuals "who may have spit in the past or acted out in such a way that makes the transporting people believe he may continue with violent behavior." The mask is not making a statement. Not a symbol or a judgment device. It's not meant to weigh on the psyche. "It's just the way it's constructed," says Dombroski. "It has a functionality that prevents a person from spitting. It's not made to present to the public anything other than that."

Chris Zimmerman, a criminology professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, disagrees. "It's very prejudicial," he says. "This is Hannibal Lecter. That's the point, to make people look like they're less than human." Once you do that, Zimmerman says, "it's appropriate to treat them as less than human."

Even as a spit shield, it disturbs Zimmerman. Being spit on is not pleasant, not fun, but it hasn't been shown to cause HIV, he says, and "the harm involved doesn't warrant that kind of response."

Then again, what about the cruelty of the crime Carpio is accused of committing? So what if they strapped a mask on him?

An alleged cop killer is not a sympathetic character, and Zimmerman says he doesn't feel sorry for him or anyone similarly accused. "But that doesn't mean you can treat them as an animal," he says. The mask, he says, sends a subliminal message about guilt.

Something about this mask also sets off our darkest curiosity: Did its maker mean for it to look sinister? Do the air holes give it its medieval creepiness? It reminds some of us of Darth Vader or some other dystopian fictional character. And for some of us, it's more historically disturbing -- the air holes conjure up archival drawings from the 18th century, the iron masks and shackles reserved for the most recalcitrant slaves. Devices like this have spoken through the ages.

Correctional fashion brought us the modern orange jumpsuit, plastic handcuffs for mass demonstrators, new fences, new chains, new things. The mask, as seen on Carpio, feels new. It somehow asks: Is the world worse than you thought?

Perhaps it's not the image that is so arresting; maybe it's just the questions.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.