How to stop inmates from using penny locks

Penny locks are simple enough to create, and can cause distress in an officer’s day


Many of you may remember from your college days when a classmate would come along and lock you in your dorm room using a technique called “penny locking.” When you would get up to leave the room, the door handle wouldn’t turn and you were stuck. The giggling and laughing outside the door was a general clue that this was no accident and you have been “had.”

This same technique has been adapted by inmates inside our facilities. Many housing units still have individually keyed doors on cells. Although a lot of the newer correctional centers have slider doors, many officers still work in units where they key each door as needed.

What is “penny locking”?
Penny locking is the technique of applying pressure between the door jamb and the door. Inmates generally do not have access to pennies, but anything – plastic sporks, metal or even folded paper – will work. If done correctly this will prevent, or at least make it extremely difficult,  to turn the key. The pressure between the door jam and door will directly transfer to the bolt, effectively locking it in place.

Often penny locking is simply used by inmates as a way to disrupt the officer’s day. Their best case scenario is having the officer break a key, thereby using staff time and departmental money to repair the lock. Worst case scenario is an attempted suicide or assault inside the cell, so when staff respond  the door won’t open.

Although this type of inmate barricade is temporary at best, a couple of quick tips can often bring this to a quick end.

How to prevent it
The first step to preventing this type of problem is basic Corrections 101 - contraband control. Regular searches of inmates and their living areas helps keep the type of items they can use to a minimum.

The second is staff knowledge. Staff should be made aware that “door bumping” is often a sign that an inmate is trying create enough space between the door and the door jamb to insert an item.

The more items they can insert, the more pressure exerted against the bolt. Inmates will often try to get a wedge in at the top and another at the bottom of the door.

How to overcome it
If the inmate is successful in “penny locking” the door, what happens now? One successful technique is to ram the door where the item is inserted. The ram should be used only against the edge of the door near the jamb.

This will compress or smash the item, releasing the pressure against the bolt and allowing the key to turn. Force applied to the middle of the door can cause unnecessary damage to the door itself and will not compress the wedged item.

Although not always possible, intelligence viewed from another window, or fiber-optic camera in a cell vent is invaluable. The closer the ram hits to the wedged item, the more it will compress or flatten. If the inmate has wedged more than one area (i.e. top and bottom), work the ram first to one, then the other. Any one or two-man ram will work, but the heavier the ram, the more compression you will get.

Some metals like aluminum or tin will compress, but if the inmate has used some type of heavy solid metal to initiate the wedge, your breaching team may have to resort to cutting the bolt or hinges to gain access as a last resort.

Like a game of chess, the inmates are regularly planning their next strategy to beat your security procedures.  Basic correctional techniques like contraband control, regular hands-on pat searches, and staff training are the pieces we control that will keep us safe and ready for their next move.

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