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All pens are not created equal
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 11/17/2014

Pen The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

Sometimes, there are small hazards right under our noses. What we ignore can hurt us. As corrections professionals, we need to be aware of that little things can mean a lot.

Consider the common pen. It is almost camouflaged in its ubiquity. But is it just a writing instrument? Or is it? Let the class decide for themselves.
  1. Break the class into groups of three or four.
  2. One person per team shall be designated as the spokesperson.
  3. Have all people present place every writing implement in their possession in a pile in a central location in the room.
  4. Make the announcement that it is everyone’s responsibility to remember which pen is theirs and to take it at the end of the exercise.
  5. EXTRA EXERCISE STEP: At the end of the exercise, as an additional point of discussion, you can ask participants to comment on any issues in retrieving the pens. Prior to the exercise out of earshot of others, the facilitator can appoint an observer to watch for dynamics and actions when people take back their pens. This should be done on the sly, otherwise, there may be an inadvertent introduction of the Hawthorne Effect.
  6. As the facilitator, you should add a few small ‘safety’ or ‘segregation’ pens in that pile. These look different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Generally, they are less than four inches long. Some are flexible and some are rigid.
  7. In turn, have each group look at the pens for a minute. They are to do this without any instructions.

    After all groups have had that time to look, Tell them to take five minutes to answer the following questions in written form. Do not forget to give each team a ‘segregation’ pen to make notes.

    How can someone harm you with these pens? In other words, what sorts of weapons can one make with the pens?
    Which pen is the most dangerous?
    Should prisoners have pens? If not, are there litigation issues?
    Why are some pens so short?
    If prisoners are allowed to have pens, how would an agency regulate them?


  8. A worksheet with these questions follows these numbered instructions. Please make as many copies as you wish and distribute when using this exercise.
  9. OPTION: Another option is to allow participants to craft weapons from the pens.
  10. Have each team report their findings.
What did your class come up with? Was there mention of a blowgun from the barrel? Was ink used to smear on the security camera’s lens? Or was the pen used as a stinger, sticker, or poker?

Certainly, there is much more to a pen than ink. Sometimes we forget about the spring, metal mechanisms, and the malleable plastic. The pen might not always be mightier than a sword, but is it sure easier to hide. This exercise is useful in reminding corrections veterans of the many unintended utilities in common items. This may help increase vigilance.

Below is a sample template for the "All pens are not created equal" worksheet:

All pens are not created equal worksheet
Lists of questions:
  1. How can someone harm you with these pens? In other words, what sorts of weapons can one make with the pens?
  2. Which pen is the most dangerous?
  3. Should prisoners have pens? If not, are there litigation issues?
  4. Why are some pens so short?
  5. If prisoners are allowed to have pens, how would an agency regulate them?


Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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