Coping with the never-ending evolution of inmate weapons

Inmates are adept at turning whatever materials are at hand into improvised weapons – the ongoing challenge for corrections officials is to detect these weapons


Prison is dangerous enough for inmates and corrections officers without adding weapons to the mix. Unfortunately, weapons are part of prison life – specifically improvised weapons made from whatever materials may be at hand.

“Shivs” or “shanks” are stabbing knives that can be made from shaved-down items like plastic toothbrushes, strips of metal or wood. A padlock inserted inside a sock can be swung against someone’s head to deadly effect. Dental floss or a light cord can be turned into a garrote for choking. Even rolled paper can be formed into a club by soaking it in water, squeezing the paper dry until it becomes dense and hard, then adding more paper and water and repeating the process.

“Inmate-manufactured weapons are always a significant danger because of the threat that they pose to the safety of other inmates, staff and ultimately the public,” said

“Shivs” or “shanks” are stabbing knives that can be made from shaved-down items like plastic toothbrushes, strips of metal or wood.
“Shivs” or “shanks” are stabbing knives that can be made from shaved-down items like plastic toothbrushes, strips of metal or wood. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Rusty Ringler, Program Services Bureau Chief at the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

“As different materials are introduced into facilities, inmates will learn to utilize those materials or alter them in order to suit their needs, whether it's to use as a weapon or as a tool to circumvent a particular rule or a security procedure.”

Motivation and opportunity drive innovation

The old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” neatly describes why inmates are driven to make weapons in prison. Some do so to protect themselves against real or perceived threats. Other inmates make weapons to intimidate people in the prison population, to “make a name” for themselves and exert power.

Another saying, ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’, comes to mind given the excessive time inmates have on their hands. The human desire to combat boredom by doing something – anything! – can play a part in driving inmates to make weapons.

In instances where inmates have access to actual tools as part of their daily work duties/rehabilitation programs, matters can get out of hand. “We've identified items within our inventory that have been utilized in the metal shop to make what would be called a ‘zip gun’,” said Ringler. “Although crude, a zip gun can be used to fire a bullet.”        

Detecting and deterring prison weapon usage

It is impossible to deprive inmates of everything that could be used to fashion weapons. The best that can be done is to limit the potential lethality of available materials by using items such as “shank-free” cleaning mops made of plastic rather than metal and wood.

This fact explains why prison officials should focus on detecting the existence of weapons and deterring their use. To achieve this, “there has to be a constant state of awareness within the institution through maintaining an ‘intelligence culture’,” said Ringler. “This includes ongoing monitoring of emails, phone calls and outside visits, and keeping your finger on the pulse of what's going on within the facility by listening to and assessing the climate within the inmate population.”

As well, prison staff need to conduct frequent, unexpected pat-downs and searches of inmates and their surroundings to detect weapons at every opportunity. Inmates also should be checked when exiting metal shops, kitchens and other areas where potentially lethal weapons can be obtained by repurposing screwdrivers and kitchen knives or stealing raw materials like metal and plastic that can be manufactured into weapons. “This monitoring can be enhanced where necessary by employing metal detectors and strip searches,” Ringler said.                    

Improving overall security and safety within a facility, through enhanced surveillance and inmate monitoring can also lessen the perceived “need” for prisoners to manufacture weapons. After all, even one less person making weapons is one less source of danger.

It is also wise to speak with other wardens within the state and the country to identify new trends in weapons manufacture. These conversations should include which new materials are being exploited by inmates and taking steps to limit their access to them.

The bottom line: It is impossible to eliminate inmate-manufactured weapons, but it is possible to reduce their existence and the threat these weapons pose to inmates and staff alike.

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