by John Cheese
I have kind of a morbid fascination with prisons. It probably stems from the fact that half of the people I grew up with have been (or are currently) in one. Over the years, I've heard hundreds of horror stories about both guards and other prisoners ... but the stories that surprised me the most were the ones where the most mundane possessions have sent a person to solitary confinement. And when I say "mundane," I don't mean cigarettes or homemade booze. I mean really mundane. For instance ...
In some "work camps" (less than minimum security prisons), rules can be a lot more relaxed than in traditional facilities. In fact, some work camps even allow visitors to sign out an inmate, unsupervised, for a few hours to shop, eat and totally not commit any crimes, we swear.
If you order any food while you're out, though, you'd better eat it all, because there's no bringing back the leftovers. Any new possessions are checked at the door, and all food is thrown in the garbage ... I'm assuming while the guard cackles maniacally. And this even includes gum.
And some say when the moon is full, you can still hear him laughing.
Wait, Really? Why?
The "no gum" rule isn't just an arbitrary thing they made up to screw with prisoners. In fact, it's considered to be one of the most dangerous contraband items you can get your hands on. Not because they're afraid you'll blow a giant bubble and float out of the yard like a 1950's cartoon character ... but because you can stuff it into a lock, effectively shutting down cells or entire sections of the prison. As Joe Bouchard puts it, "When a door becomes inoperable, it is, in effect, a wall."
They can also work the opposite way. Remember, you're in prison, so you're likely surrounded by thieves and con artists. If one of them is slick enough, he could get access to a key and use gum to make a mold out of it. Yeah, I know it sounds crazy, but trust me, it's not even close to how complex key duplicators can get.
"GET ON THE GROUND!"
Junk food is pretty easy to come by in prison, because they outright sell it in their in-house store (known as commissary). The near-universal rule among all prisons, though, is that you can only possess food and items that come from that commissary list. There are a couple of reasons for that.
1) All of those items have been inspected by prison security, so they know contraband isn't being smuggled in from the outside. It's easier than you think to open a bag of chips, throw in a handful of pills and then reseal the package. If the prison controls the products, they can cut off that method of smuggling. 2) They can make sure you don't get your hands on hard candy.
Wait, Really? Why?
You probably suspected one of the most obvious reasons: You can straight-up make a shank out of it. No, seriously, here's a guy making one, using a heat source and some aluminum foil. And here's another guy, using nothing but a heat source:
One of the more surprising uses for hard candy is turning them into sweet, sweet drugs. Prisoners have been found to crush their medication into a powder. Then, using a bit of heat, they melt down candy like Jolly Ranchers, stir the powder into the liquid, and then let the mixture cool and harden again. If they time it right, they can reshape it while it's still warm and and put it right back in the wrapper. Then someone can just suck it. Like literally.
Fruit Juice And Traditional Bread
Remember that old trope about prisoners getting nothing to eat but bread and water? Well, it turns out that's not such a good idea ... and not just because they'd die of malnutrition if that's all they ever ate. They could always swap out the water for fruit juice, which would take care of some of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies. But according to the rules, that would just compound the problem, because in some prisons both bread and fruit juice are contraband.
What, Really? Why?
Simply put: you can make booze out of them. Now, at first, you might be thinking, "Oh, come on. A few people make crappy beer out of bread, and now the prison takes it completely out of their diet?" The problem with that perspective is that it's only looking at the "couple of people getting buzzed" aspect of alcohol and ignoring the "dude went blind because of a bad batch" angle.
"I TOLD you not to give him schnapps!"
How many parties have you been to where there wasn't a person who tried to start a fight after four drinks? Imagine that emotional instability in a prison setting. Especially if they have access to an arsenal of Jolly Ranchers and bubblegum.
Now that's not to say that they don't get bread at all. It's just that most prisons use an alternative that's made without yeast. One of my relatives had to eat that crap for several years, and he said it tastes like a shoe. A bready, yeastless shoe.
Greeting Cards And Crayon Drawings
It's your birthday. You're spending it on the bottom bunk of a 6' by 8' cell, sitting just 48 inches from another guy who's currently pooping. As the day goes on, you get more and more depressed, because you can't celebrate like a normal human. Mail time rolls around, and you hit rock bottom, because you got nothing. No card. Not even a crappy drawing from your fatherless children. You have been forgotten. Dropped like the expelled turds of your grunting cellmate.
Above: An actual picture taken in prison.
A week later, you bring it up on a phonecall to your wife, and she seems genuinely surprised. "What? You should have gotten them by now. Every member of the family got you a card, and all the kids made drawings for you."
It turns out the guards on mail duty threw away every last one of them.
What, Really? Why?
This one is all about smuggling.
Regular greeting cards are usually fine, but the multi-layered ones are typically rejected outright. That's because it's pretty easy to hide drugs in them. The sender just steams open the back panel, plants contraband on the inside and then glues it shut again. It's not exactly complex, but it's worked enough times that many prisons just put a blanket ban on the whole thing. Screw your stupid birthday.
Drawings are still all about the smuggling, but the methods are more complex. People have figured out how to infuse drugs into everything from crayons to markers to watercolors, and they're super hard to detect. So if you've ever been in prison and saw a dude sucking on a drawing of a happy stick family standing under a smiling cartoon sun ... that's why.
"Excuse me while I kiss the sky."
Among all the people I've ever talked to about prison life (dozens), the most common complaint wasn't about the fights or the fear ... it was the boredom. You can only go so long with nothing to do before your mind starts to reach out for any hobby at all. Even if it's making spiders out of toilet paper and string from your underwear.
Of course, you're risking a lot when you do that in some prisons, because if you're caught, they can not only confiscate all of your artwork ... they can throw you straight into solitary for making it.
Don't worry, it's not used ... yet.
Wait, Really? Why?
This can be a gray area that changes from prison to prison, but there are quite a few reasons to keep a tight lid on art. The most generic is a rule where the inmates aren't allowed to alter any object or use it for something other than its intended purpose. Since the toilet paper isn't being used for butt-wiping, those spiders are considered a violation of prison rules.
That sounds petty, but on top of wasting a bunch of crack-cleaner, it can set off a chain reaction. "He got to alter his toilet paper into spiders. Why can't I alter my bed sheets?" "He altered his bed sheets. Why can't I alter my radio?" They have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, so they start low on the totem pole by banning something harmless.
The second level to that rule lies in sculpture. This guy makes incredible works of art, using nothing but discarded scraps of soap that he finds on the shower floor. They truly are beautiful, but the question is, when does this cease to be a sculpting tool and become a shank?
When does this change from an elephant to a bludgeoning object? Or if it's hollow, a place to hide drugs?
It doesn't have to be that guy who does it. Anyone with access to it can use it. Though now that I think about it, I really want to see someone get the crap beat out of them with that elephant. So maybe I'm not the best judge on these sorts of rules.
Like this article? Check out "The 6 Craziest Things People Have Made In Prison" and "5 Real, Creative Punishments The Law Handed Out To Morons".