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A bird in hand: Alternate uses for discarded items
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 10/09/2010

Birdinhand What do you throw away that could be of use elsewhere? What common items do you take for granted? In a prison setting, items that you discard can be used against you. Sometimes we forget this and dispose of items that prisoners recycle into marketable goods. Therefore, we unwittingly fuel the illicit economy of the institution and sacrifice safety.

Use and scarcity dictate value. For a non-prison example, we go to the upper Midwest many years ago. Here, a young boy climbed into the grain elevators to find doves. These birds would roost there for food and shelter. The boy harvested the birds, selling some to local restaurants and taking some home for his family to consume.

He was also aware that some children from an affluent neighboring community preferred to keep these birds as pets. They seemed to like the snow-white doves in particular. The boy capitalized on a specialized market. He would trade one of the white show birds for five ordinary looking doves. The boy was not interested in the color of their plumage. Yet, he knew of their value to others and was willing to collect the rare commodity. Those that traded for a white dove at five-fold increase did not take the initiative or risk to assail the grain towers.

Ordinary items become valuable when a need becomes apparent. Often, they are simple items with an unintended utility. Some prison examples are:
  • Chewing gum, staples, and tape. They can be recycled to use as an adhesive. They also have a dangerous use as tools that disable locks. Doorjambs can also be compromised if the gum or tape is properly applied.
  • Envelopes. The adhesive flap can be used as tape. It can also serve as makeshift corrections tape, which may aid in altering documents. Envelopes also become the raw material for an illicit greeting card business.
  • File folders. If you discover that there are missing manila folders in your area of control before major holidays, be aware that some enterprising prisoners often make money from the cards that they make. The opportunity of this sort of unauthorized entrepreneur is greatest before Mother's day.
  • Ink pads. Those that discard the spongy part of an inkpad may have inadvertently offered an opportunity for a tattooing enterprise. The ink artist uses the pad as a place to keep the ink obtained from pens.
  • Shipping tape from discarded cardboard boxes. Just like its smaller cousin, shipping tape can be used as adhesive and as a way to disable door locks. But, it is actually a serious weapon. One need not have too much imagination to see how shipping tape transforms into a tool of strangulation. It is also a tool of sabotage. Enough of it flushed can compromise a sewage system or 'flood the rock'. It should be considered dangerous contraband.
  • Discarded multipart carbonless computer paper or forms. Those prisoners in the gambling industry feel fortunate when they recover items of this sort. Quite simply, they serve as receipts for the wager. The written record of the bet becomes more enforceable that the verbal agreement.
  • Plants on the yard. You don't have to be a botanist to understand that plants have special properties. Some are mildly hallucinogenic while others can be poisonous. Word of mouth and experimentation advance the tradition and practice of herbalogy in the prison setting.
  • Sugar packets. All food items have value in barter. However, sugar packets deserve special attention. They are mobile, easy to conceal, and many staff throw them away. Sugar is one of the key ingredients in making institutional alcohol, or spud juice. It is also possible to make hard candy by burning sugar. Of course, it is reported that some sugar substitutes burn. With enough in place, that could mean arson for an institution.
  • Roll of toilet paper. When a full roll of toilet paper is unrolled, there is ample opportunity to conceal flat goods. By simply inserting stamps, documents, betting slips, money, etc., between the paper and carefully rolling it up, prisoners have an innocent looking safe.

Just like the young man that knew the value of birds in the market, some prisoners have a keen eye for utility. Be aware: What you deem as worthless can be a valuable, sometimes-dangerous treasure for inmates. Think before you throw something in the waste can.

Editor's note: For an exciting two day presentation on contraband control, come to Charleston, West Virginia on December 6-7, 2010. Joe Bouchard and G. Scott Colvin, CJM, the Chief Deputy of Kenton County, KY will present The Design, Development, and Deployment of Jail Facility Interdiction and Search Teams. Seating is limited! Please contact Steve Kendall, Training Coordinator, at 301–790–3930 for more information.

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