Prison DIY

Bryhanna Greenough goes to jail, does not pass Go

Prison is the ultimate testing ground for do-it-yourself wizardry.

Last week a friend handed me a printed copy of something called Prisoners’ Inventions. This book doesn’t embellish. It’s as straight up as it gets. It’s a manual of do-it-yourself techniques used to rig up a better life in prison.

The author and illustrator Angelo (no last name given) worked together with a Chicago artist collective called Temporary Services to document the inventions made by prisoners. It explains everything from how to heat a cup of tea with a flaming ‘toilet paper bomb’ to instructions on constructing a tattoo gun out of a cassette player motor, a pen and some rubber bands.

Many of the inventions are really fascinating, and inadvertently the book reveals a lot about what prison is actually like.

The very first entry, for example, is called “Pillows.” Angelo’s drawing shows a thin mat rolled under at one end to make a cushion to lay the head on. A figure wrapped in a thin blanket lies on his side, with knees bent to fit the short mat. Where else but jail would you have absolutely nothing else to use as a pillow but the mat?

The “Work Table” is just a way of positioning your body so you can write or draw comfortably while on your bunk. The lesson on “Splitting Matches” helps conserve when inmates are limited to two packs of matches per month.

By the time you get to the entry “Air Vent Covers” you really begin to imagine the sort of hell jail must be.

Of all the comfort problems inmates encounter, Angelo says, unseasonably hot or cold air flow from the duct is the most common. One way to solve the problem is to mash some wet toilet paper onto the vent. Another is to obsessively plug each vent hole with a piece of rolled up cardboard.

The obvious question may arise: “Why not just ask someone to adjust the thermostat?”

Angelo’s rationale behind the air vent covers is that a prisoner should try to remedy the problem himself because complaining about the heat, or lack of, can result in the guards’ making conditions worse.

For Angelo, prison inventions are also a way of rebelling against a strict and dehumanizing system.

“It’s the cops’ job to keep us down and ours to show them they can’t.”

Any modifications made by prisoners are considered contraband, and can be seized. Even something as benign as an improvised clothes hanger or a papier mache chess piece can be taken away.

Despite having a huge fear of electrical outlets, the “Wall Socket Cigarette Lighter” is really neat in theory and totally unadvisable. On the more benign end of the scale are the salt and pepper shakers in refurbished Chap Stick containers. I’d say they border on cute.

If you want to learn how to make a big messy protest statement, check out the section on Flooding: “Dam the crack under the steel door with plastic and clothes, turn on the sink and toilet taps and let the concrete cell block fill up with water. Then pull the plug (remove the door jam) and gravity does the rest. I could see someone getting in major crap for this one.

A Fishing Tale is a story passed down to Angelo by an old-timer. Inmates discovered the toilets on a multi-story prison shared a common pipe. A string flushed upstairs on the womens’ floor was somehow snagged by the men on the downstairs floor. The two lines were tied together and a massive exchange of data, including notes and even photos encased in protective plastic baggies, were pulled through the pipes. The story goes that love affairs blossomed between strangers until the fateful day a woman guard stumbled upon the secret and the whole group was busted.

Even if you never end up on the inside, Prisoners’ Inventions is a lesson on how to make do with what you’ve got. And I guarantee you’ll never look at toilet paper or Bic pens the same way again.

You can read more about the Prisoners’ Inventions manual at ­temporaryservices.org. You can see re-creations of many of the inventions there as well.

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