Shanks, Shotguns and Stoves: Ingeniously Crafted Prison Contraband

Ingeniously Crafted Prison Contraband

In 2009, nearly 2.5 million citizens in the United States were incarcerated in federal and state jails and prisons. And in most of those correctional palaces, everyday things that were taken for granted on the outside are banned, from lighters to cooking grills. But that doesn't stop some ingenious inmates from improvising a few familiar devices from the land of the free.

With hours on end spent within a cramped cell, there's no limit to what one can conjure up. If they can acquire the right materials, they can build some really cool MacGyver-esque things. Sometimes it's luxurious, like a device for lighting up a cigarette. Sometimes it's essential, like a weapon that protects from the advances of another inmate. And sometimes it's something Michael Scofield would think up in Prison Break—an escape tool to shave some time off their prison sentence.

Below is a compilation of some of these clever convict inventions, from simple handmade contraband to improvised weapons. Some of these items were constructed in the U.S., but the majority of this jailhouse tech was conceived behind bars in other countries, like Germany and Mexico, where life isn't so easy for detainees.

PRISON LIGHTER. Made from a battery, electrical wire and tape. One end of the wire is taped to the negative terminal of the battery, then the other end of the wire is touched to the positive, which heats up the exposed section in the middle. (California)
PRISON SHOTGUN. Made from iron bedposts, tape and a clothespin. The charge consisted of lead from curtain tape and match heads, ignited by AA batteries and a broken light bulb. Did it work? Yes. Two inmates escaped through a bulletproof window using this homemade firearm. (Germany)
PRISON SHANK. Made with a stainless steel tablespoon. The bowl of the spoon was filled with wax, then wrapped with upholstery thread to make a secure handle. The tip was probably sharpened on the concrete floor. (New Jersey)
PRISON GUN. Made from metal in a metal workshop. Its ammunition was made of steel and match heads. (Germany)
PRISON COOKING GRILL. Made from a tin can, electrical wire, dirt and a stove burner surface element. (Mexico)
PRISON WHIP. Made with a small wooden plank, shoelace, razor blades and small end weight. Ouch. It was built by a Methadone addict, meant to scare prison officers into giving a higher drug dosage. (Germany)
PRISON SHIV. Made from a strip of wood, five large razor blades and six smaller razor blade, glue, boxing tape, Rubylith and clear tape. (New Jersey)
PRISON COOKING GRILL. This one is made from a brick, long spring wire and electrical wire. (Mexico)
HALF WEAPON, HALF MOONSHINE MAKER. This prison device is made using a electrical plug and wire. Razor blades at the end make it a nasty whip, but it can also be used as an emersion coil, plugged into an electrical outlet and dipped into a fermentable substance to make prison hooch. (Germany)
PRISON DINNERWARE SET. Made from a tin can (bowl/plate), aluminum sliver from a soda can (spoon), and small canister (cup). (Mexico)
PRISON PIPE. Made from a simple tube of anything. Just clean out the inside, poke a hole at the end and remove the lid to smoke up. It's great for prisoners because it looks just like it's supposed to... rolled up toothpaste tube or some horseradish (?). (Germany)
PRISON SHANK. Crucifixes were common projects inside woodshops, until officers realized that inmates had not found God, but just a clever way to disguise their deadly shanks. (Germany)
PRISON SHIV. A plastic comb with three single-edge razor blades inserted into the teeth, then secured with copper wire and shoelace. (New Jersey)
PRISON WEAPONS. One is made from a pencil sharpener and the others from cigarette lighters, one with a small razor burned into the end and the other with a nail. (Mexico)
PRISON SHANKS. Made from rusty window borders. They're just pried off and shaped into a dangerous, long and pointed weapon. (Mexico)
PRISON RADIO RECEIVER. Taken from an old receiver, this radio was built and hidden inside a book. (Germany)

To see some more prison tech from Germany, check out Marc Steinmetz's Escape Tools collection. For more prison shanks from New Jersey, check out Dangerous Beauty: The Art of the Shiv at Design Observer. For more from Mexico, read Gabriella Gómez-Mont's interview with Antonio Vega Macotela at Toxico Cultura. Also, check out some of the previously featured work from Temporary Services.

6 Comments

Whips - Ouch.

the grills would be good for anything survival really.

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