Written by Mike Knox who is new to the Skillset team.
This article is an exploration of the artifacts manufactured by incarcerated men in solitary confinement in a California prison. These artifacts of confinement reflect both the vulnerability and strength of prison life through a body of work that challenges our perceptions.
Prisoners who commit crimes in a prison are sent to solitary confinement, or “The Hole,” for readjustment. What little property they have is stripped away from them and additional restrictions are forced upon them. These prisoners spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells and only come out for showers and yard time three days a week.
If the elements of a prisoner’s crime are taken away, what is left are men struggling to survive. They are a subculture with their own laws, art, currency, language and philosophy. Technology is constantly changing, but prisoners’ lives remain stagnant. They have no luxuries in a world made from concrete and steel. However, these humans still find ways to make and own possessions and to barter for goods and services. Like a weed making its way through a crack in the sidewalk, many prisoners thrive in this concrete jungle.
When I first started working in a maximum-security prison, I expected the prisoners to be quietly sitting in their cells with no material possessions. I was surprised to see how much property the prisoners owned in an 8×10-foot cell. Prison regulations allowed the inmates to own very little property, but inmates were always creating items for fighting, bartering and pleasure. The prisoners found themselves in a society with its own need for consumption. These men in their own“lost world” are forgotten, but the artifacts they leave behind give us amazing insights into their existences.
Shank: A weapon used to cause damage to its victim’s vital organs. This weapon was made from a 5×7-inch mirror above the sink in the prisoner’s cell. The handle is supported by a piece of wood and masking tape.
Shiv: A small weapon made from a state-issued toothbrush and a razor. The string at the end is used to pull the weapon out of the rectum. A piece of paper or cloth is used to cover the top of the sharp weapon. This weapon is used to slice the neck.
Tattoo Gun: Made from the motor of a cassette deck, a Bic pen and a guitar string for a needle. The ends of the wire are plugged into an electrical outlet or batteries. The needle hooks into the motor and pumps the needle up and down so that the ink can go under the skin. Black ink can be made by burning baby oil under a plastic bag and scraping the ash from the inside of the bag. The ash is then mixed with tooth powder to give it consistency.
Dice: Used for gambling. Made from toilet paper or hardened pieces of bread. Dice can also be made from hardened sugar, Kool-Aid, and tooth powder. The size,weight and sound are almost identical to real dice. It seems that the bigger the dice, the more medication the prisoner is on.
Stinger: A prison-made appliance. Made from an electrical cord (radio or TV) and any piece of metal. A Stinger is used to heat food in the prisoner’s cell because they do not have stoves or microwaves. The prisoners are allowed to purchase items from the canteen, and a stinger is used to heat instant soups or hot chocolate. A stinger can also be used as a weapon, much like a stun gun.
The prison items collected inside The Hole express human ingenuity. The prisoners who created these objects typically do so for the importance of their use and their value. Every item holds a price. The creation of these tools fabricated under conditions of such limitations is inspiring.
Outside the prison walls, life is moving forward, but inside, time has stopped. The prisoners do their best to adjust and keep up and to keep healthy and stay sane. They do this by creating useful objects out of found items while doing their time. And time is a commodity most of these men have a lot of.