Sunday, May 2, 2010


Recent events in a Northern prison - three screws stabbed, one infamous con slashed - remind me of the malign ingenuity of prisoners when it comes to making weapons. Or as we call them 'tools', as in 'tooled up'.

The 'standard' weapons are tins of tuna in a sock - a weighty bludgeoning tool - and a razor blade melted into the handle of a toothbrush.

Even these reveal shifts in the culture of prison over the years. The standard tool for decades was a PP9 battery in a sock, a fearsome item that could stun you quickly. But the introduction of electricity and the resulting unavailability of such large batteries has seen a shift to another ubiquitous item, tins of tuna.

Of course, there isn't much that can't be turned into a weapon in extremis. If it is metal, glass or hard plastic then it can be heated, beaten or shaped into a stabbing or cutting implement. Just about my person as I write there are numerous potential weapons. The arms of my specs can be used to stab; the lenses can be broken to slice; the lighter in my pocket has a metal rim, usually used as an all-purpose screwdriver but could be sharpened to cut; and my tobacco tin, made of two pieces of steel, can conceivably be sharpened.

Depending on how desperate the individual, how extreme the circumstances, and how malign the imagination then there is little that can't be turned into a weapon.
This has always taxed the brains of my keepers and, in particular, the decrepit neuron that powers the Prison Officers Association. In the recent attack oop North, one of their members lost the use of his arm. The assault seemed to have been carried out with a broken bottle, possibly of the sauce variety.

Their response was their default, thoughtless one - to remove all glass objects from the list of items we may buy. Coffee and sauces are the main items. They also demanded that the prison be locked-down for days whilst they searched for other 'weapons' and then made a vote of No Confidence in the Governor.

It may surprise some people that we have access to the likes of glass coffee jars and bottles of HP. Why, I wonder? Is it assumed that prisoners are a seething mass of animal urges, that the only reason that we are not attacking staff and each other in a, perpetual bloodbath is for want of a weapon of any kind?

It may disappoint those raised on a diet of American prison movies, but it just isn't like that. Oddly enough, most of us potter through the days un-frustrated at our inability to slaughter the neighbours.

The POA claim an expertise amongst their members, borne out of their daily contact with prisoners. Alas, their view of us is as clouded as that of the most rabid tabloid newspaper. They really don't have a clue, preferring to portray us as barely restrained animals. And yet, in this place, where most of my peers are murderers, there may be just one single punch-up a year.

Take away the glass jars, then. Will that make a whit's worth of difference? Of course not. The next attack on staff would then come from a razor blade. So take away the razors? Then the tinned goods. Then any bludgeons, like furniture, chairs, tables...

People don't attack each other because they have a handy weapon. The weapon is merely their means to fulfil some chosen end. The question is, why choose to attack staff in such a way?

I recall the screws down the Block in Dartmoor taking it upon themselves to ensure that we had nothing that could remotely be used as a weapon. No beds, no chair, nothing metal at all. Why such extremism? Because they were bloodily and deliberately brutal and it's far safer to punch a con in the mouth when you have lots of other screws with you - and when you know the con has no weapons to even the score.


  1. The only weapon that beats ever other weapon is LOVE! Love your enemies is my greatest weapon. Be shrewd in loving your enemies as you'd be in a game of chess, whereby the winner takes it all! Good luck with all my love!

  2. This subject of makeshift weapons reminds me of a most horrific storey about a prisoner in the USA.

    A young man, a biker type who was committed to jail on minor offenses, once in jail, because of the segregated nature of the prisons in the USA and of the society, he was pressurised to join a white supremicist group, and started to become involved in fights and scuffles, but it was mainly the prison officers who he had most beef with, unsurprisingly, and one day he made a home made blade, a shank they call it.

    He used it on a prison officer who was particularly and incessantly picking on him, and the PO died as a result of the attack on him.

    The most harrowing part of this story is the punishment that was meeted out to him as a result. The state in America were he was ( I forget which one - somewhere in the middle I think) used the peoples money to make a purpose built prison deep down underground. The ruling was that the death penalty was too good for him. So they built a dungeon where he is watched 24/7 seven days a week, the electric lights are on constantly, he is denied a razor or cleaning stuff.

    There was press allowed at the time of the report I saw, but now there is no press allowed, he is denied pen, paper, books, just about anything you can think of.

    They wanted to make his life hell on earth - what nasty mixed up people are there governing that state and being so cruel.

    I think about this man from time to time because he is still there and still young, oh mercy!

  3. Terrifying, Sophie.

    There's a very good poem over at Carla Zilbersmith's blog which well describes the imprisoning mindset - and much more besides. It's all the more poignant because Carla is imprisoned in her body, dying of ALS, which Brits call MND (motor neurone disease), and this is her last ever post.

    It's a great poem. And an extraordinary blog.

  4. Sophie - I'm American and I'm interested in reading further about this, do you know the man's name?

  5. JD, Hi.

    I learned about the story on a documentary I watched some time ago. Had I have known the shocking nature of the case I might have thought to have taken some notes, but alas I didn't and I know not any details, such as the guys name and what state in the US he is being held in.

    Maybe some prisoner campaigns in the US might have some details of it, or maybe Mumia Abu Jamal, the campaigning journalist on death row, he might well know something more about this.

    I really hope the man can get some information out about his plight in this awful dungeon as the documentary film ended on a rather depressing note that all outside media interest was being denied him. Its utterly shocking.

  6. I once saw a fella weighed in with two metal food trays. One to the front and one the back of the head at the same time. A jug of boiling hot water to the face was also a prison standard.

  7. I once saw a fella weighed in with two metal food trays. One to the front and one the back of the head at the same time. A jug of boiling hot water to the face was also a prison standard.