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Gone Fishing
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 07/10/2017

Fisherman-a The following is an installment in "Icebreakers 101: The College Edition", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

It is no surprise to those of us in the corrections profession that prisoners will build simple, yet ingenious ways to communicate. Chief among these is building ‘cars’ and honing fishing skills.

Weighted envelopes with dental floss or string can be seen scooting across the floor of the cell blocks everywhere. Using a car and fish line, the skilled fisherman can with one slide land the message or contraband in another’s cell. Other tactics include two fishing lines on the rock at the same time with one of them snagging the other.

For the two groups of three student each that are pictured below, I began my criminal justice lecture with the following materials on the center table.
  • 4 risers. In this case, they were 1 ½” cans of play dough. They can be anything of that size. Children’s building blocks work well.
  • Two yard sticks
  • A pad of paper
  • Envelopes
  • Dental floss or string
  • Tape
Used to my style, they knew that there was going to be an icebreaker during class. Still, devoid of hints or emotions, I delivered the lecture while occasional questions were thrown my way about the materials.

After the lecture, I posed these two questions:
  1. How can prisoners in segregation communicate?
  2. How can prisoners communicate with no words?
Then I asked them if they could assemble something that simulates the bottom of a door. With not too many leading questions, both teams taped blocks on each end of a yard stick.

Then I asked them to assemble a device to send messages from one “door” to the other. Trial and error yielded an envelope with dental floss taped to a corner and message written inside. Eventually, since the ‘cars’ could not slide the entire length of the 12 foot long table, one student devised a weight with a thin wallet. The weight was crucial to keep the car and message from leaving the surface of the table and stalling a few feet from the starting place.

Then we discussed the hazards that a prisoner might have in transmitting the message. Some that the students suggested were:
  • Staff could intercept
  • The message could never arrive due to a malfunctioning car
  • The prisoner fisher might be inept at sending the message
  • The car may land in the wrong prisoner’s hands
It is useful for students to engage in this exercise. It gives them an understanding of just how easy it is for prisoners to convey information. Also, it reminds them of the responsibility of corrections staff to eliminate fishing. There is no official end to fishing season behind bars.

Gone Fishing Question Sheet
  1. How can prisoners in segregation communicate?
  2. How can prisoners communicate with no words?
  3. How does one build a car and fish?
  4. How can staff limit this sort of communication?
  5. Can fishing and cars ever be eliminated?


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” and "Operation Icebreakers: Shooting for Excellence". 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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