Inmate Weapons: In the Jailhouse Now
A toothbrush and ballpoint pen embedded with disposable razor blades
Ed Byrne / SWAT Digest
An IED is an explosive device manufactured from improvised materials. The degree of sophistication depends largely upon the expertise of the maker and the materials available. However, prison-made devices tend to be crude in design, as IEDs fall largely in the domain of terrorist, subversive and paramilitary organisations or specialist military units. If powerful explosives are required for a concerted escape attempt, they will most likely be commercial or military grade and smuggled into the prison. But the majority of ordinary criminals do not have the expertise necessary to make or use such weapons. However, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, a new breed of prisoner entered the system. This new category of prisoner is likely to be familiar with IED devices and, together with the “suicide factor”, poses additional risks to staff and prison security.
Examples of improvised liquid weapons include sugar and boiling water, cleaning fluids and accelerants/ inflammables. Liquids are usually used as a distraction before an attack, but are highly dangerous in their own right as they can inflict serious injury and death. The first attacker will often “soften up” the victim with a liquid attack by blinding or scalding him before the next follows up with a weapon to engage the victim. A burn caused by boiling water can cause shock, but attacks with boiling water laced with sugar, soap, eggs or other viscous materials, as is usually the case in the prison environment, has a “napalm effect” in that it sticks to the skin, causing more serious injury. The corrosive nature of cleaning fluids such as bleaches and cleansers make them another favourite for liquid attacks in prisons, along with accelerants (such as petrol or alcohol) that are used to intensify the fire. Whilst not a mainstream prison weapon, these do appear in large-scale prison riots in the form of Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs.
Detection aims to remove weapons from circulation before they are used, and takes the form of human or electronic search measures. Detection procedures not only require effective security awareness and search policies, but they also need to be proactive rather than reactive. The two main types of human detection are visual detection, where an item is identified by sight, and tactile, where an object is located by touch when frisking or searching clothing. Electronic detection takes the form of X-ray machines and metal detectors.
Building and body searches by staff are an integral part of the normal prison routine. Inmates are routinely searched in their cells and as they come and go to workshops and visits. Because inmates are familiar with the search routine, they conceal contraband articles accordingly (usually on and in the body).
In order to prevent inmates from obtaining materials to manufacture and transport weapons, prison staff should focus their attention on several areas. These include the safe disposal of factory shop cut-offs and waste materials, close supervision of work being carried out by inmates, thorough search procedures on inmates entering and leaving workshops, high levels of staff vigilance and awareness, the appropriate supervision of visits and of external contractors working within the prison, and overseeing the prison laundry, which can be a transit point for contraband distribution. The escort of inmates to hospitals, courts anywhere outside of the prison complex, and additional attention to inmates who have used weapons in the past is also of importance.
Staff should receive ongoing, up-to-date information on improvised weapons as they are discovered in the prison environment. All weapons should be catalogued for future reference and available for viewing by staff. Proper safety equipment, such as suitable search gloves and mirrors, should also be available to enable staff to carry out search and detection tasks in a safe manner. They should also receive realistic training in protecting themselves against weapon attacks in the prison environment. Meanwhile, the struggle to deter, detect and control the manufacture and use of improvised weapons within the prison environment will continue as long as there are prisoners in prison