Inmate Weapons: In the Jailhouse Now
A toothbrush and ballpoint pen embedded with disposable razor blades
Ed Byrne / SWAT Digest
Prison violence is global, with prison authorities waging a constant battle to deny inmates access to improvised weapons. Despite the most stringent measures, weapons are still found often in the most unlikely places, made from even more unlikely materials. Whether stolen from factories, kitchens, workshops, art classes, pried from cell fittings or simply from articles left unattended, inmates with time on their hands, as well as exposure to the experience and knowledge of other prisoners, are able to use this material to produce some very effective weapons.
An improvised weapon is an object modified or used in a manner other than its intended original purpose, to inflict injury or death. It is therefore important for prison staff who are likely to come into contact with improvised weapons to recognise the various weapon types (some fall into more than one category). Improvised weapon groups include edged and sharp weapons, impact weapons, projectile weapons, flexible weapons, firearms, improvised explosive devices and liquid weapons.
Examples of edged and sharp improvised weapons found in prisons include a toothbrush with embedded blades or a sharpened end, a ball point pen with embedded blades, metal can lids, metal cut-offs, wooden spikes, craft blades, large screws or nails, glass shards, sharpened plastic prison cutlery, metal cutlery from the staff canteen, metal kitchen ladles, metal ring spikes from fire extinguishers, and syringes.
An edged or sharp weapon is any object that can be used to pierce or puncture the skin. Known in prison slang as “shivs”, “shanks” or “shibs”, they can be manufactured from almost any solid material that can be filed down to a point or to take an edge. The term “shank” originated from the steel shank that ran the length of the bottom of prison-issue boots. This was removed and the metal filed to create a lethal device. Most prisoners no longer wear footwear with metal shanks but the name has remained. “Shiv” is a generic term that covers all types of edged and pointed weapons in a prison environment, and originates from the Romany word “chiv”. Another lesser- known Scottish term is “chib”, which means “to slash or stab with a sharp weapon”.
The most common and easily available raw materials for “shanks” are plastic toothbrush handles, prison-issue plastic cutlery or plastic ballpoint pen shafts, cutlery or plastic ballpoint pen shafts, which can easily be filed to a point or melted and embedded with blades removed from disposable razors. Plastic and Perspex also have the advantage of being non-metallic, which means that they can escape metal detectors. Blades from disposable plastic razors are also used if available in the prison environment, but attempts to eliminate potential weapon sources have included the issuance of electric razors to prisoners, and the development of a toothbrush that has no handle but fits on to the index finger.
The grip of these improvised weapons is usually constructed from tape, sandpaper or fabric, which has the advantage of absorbing blood from wounds and decreasing the risk of the assailant’s hand slipping on to the blade. Cord or fabric is also used to attach the weapon to the assailant’s hand to prevent disarmament. Metal cutlery from staff canteens finds its way into circulation most commonly from trusted prisoners who pass them on for favours or out of fear. Syringes from intravenous drug users can also be used, although they are a rare and highly valuable commodity in prisons. They are often used in escape attempts while on escorts.