Prison is restrictive, and many items common in the free world are not allowed. But prisoners are an inventive bunch of outlaws without respect for rules. In such an environment, restrictions are bound to crumble, and prison contraband thrives.
There are many items that were—at one time—allowed. The restrictions are the result of misuse, and prisoners only have themselves to blame. Once, our radios came with built-in speakers and we could buy a hot pot to boil water for a couple of bucks from the commissary. But after numerous radio wars between the fans of country, rap, rock & roll, and Tejano music—speakers were restricted. Once one-too-many faces got scalded, our homemade hot pots were taken and replaced by pots we had to buy with thermostats that kept them from boiling.
Our first hot pots [homemade, used to heat up coffee, soup, or other food] were black and white and lasted for years—as long as you didn’t drop them. It wasn’t hard to open them up and put a piece of hardback book backing or leather between the thermostat and hot pot bottom as insulation so the hot pot would come to a boil and then turn off automatically. No more tepid coffee—and we could cook again. More faces were scalded, sometimes with grease and Magic Shave—which is way worse than water—so TDCJ came up with a new plan.
Hot pots now cost $22.50 instead of $12.50 and are made of clear plastic with a brittle orange plastic tamper-resistant ring that breaks if you open the hot pot to adjust the temperature. Being clear lets them see if changes have been made. Usually within six months these hot pots begin to leak and are nearly impossible to use. Once they start to leak, they will blow out the electricity if sitting on a steel surface. They also shock you if you touch the water.
Most of us keep homemade hot shots we call stingers made out of old electrical cords and nail clippers. You just put plastic between the two sides of a pair of broken nail clippers, attach the cord and plug in with nail clippers in the water. In no time your water is boiling. You can also use the metal plates out of a fan motor instead of nail clippers. These are faster. Yes, they’ll shock you if you touch the water, and can blow out the electricity, but you expect it.
With hot pots being replaced on a regular basis, we had to come up with a use for any parts that could be salvaged. If you can break open the hot pot heating element, there is a wire coil inside. By attaching this coil to the cord, you create a very simple lighter. Barely touch the cord prongs into the outlet and it’ll slowly turn cherry red, and you can get a light out of it or light a twist of toilet paper. Beware: it’s fast and a bit too much electricity will blow the wire coil up in your face. And red hot molten metal will shoot around like shrapnel.
Another use for hot pot elements, once the hot pot is leaking so badly it can’t be used or repaired, is to remove the entire element without damaging it. Then you hook the cord up directly. To use as a grill, you use paperback books to jam the element against the stainless steel stand to make sure the top book that is against the element is wet so it won’t catch fire. That also keeps the element from getting too hot and blowing up. All you need is butter from the kitchen and you’re in business. You can grill any of the many sandwiches we get in our lock-down sack meals and make them great. Even peanut butter and jelly is better grilled with butter. If you have connections to buy cheese and bread wholesale from the chow hall, it’s a good hustle to make grilled cheese sandwiches. They are a treat and sell for two soups (60 cents) or two stamps.
Prison is chaotic. Rules are always in flux. It took a few years before prisoners learned to build their own speakers out of scrap, but to fill in, they stole speakers from all over the prison that were meant for the intercom system. By the time they had stolen all the speakers possible—the intercom system was inoperable and our resourceful inventors had figured out how to build speakers out of scrap wire, paper, and magnets from old headphones, with gallon vegetable cans or peanut butter jars for speaker boxes. Their skills evolved quickly. Now they build better boxes out of the hard backs from books. You’d probably be shocked at the sound quality these technicians can get out of what is basically trash. They can also boost radio output power so the noise level in a cell can be high enough to damage your hearing. Earplugs are a necessity.
Each cell has one two-plug outlet in the wall for the two prisoners living there. Since we are each allowed to own one radio, two fans, one typewriter, one night light, and one hot pot—that is not nearly enough.
Our first multi-plug outlets were sold for $8.00 at the commissary and had four plug-ins. They were made of opaque gray plastic and had screws so they could be opened.
After drugs, shanks, and handcuff keys were found hidden inside them, TDCJ decided to get clear plastic cases for our outlets, and for some reason they now only sell a dual plug version that greatly limits our access to enough electricity for our needs, but prisoners are ingenious. It may seem insane, but with soda cans, cardboard, tape, string, and electric cards, outlets can be manufactured with as many plug-ins as you want. I’ve seen an outlet with six plug-ins. If made properly and handled with care, they are great. If not, fires may be a bit of a problem.
We seldom have fires unless we make them on purpose. As we can no longer buy matches and tobacco products from the commissary, guys who want to smoke have to work a little harder. When you want to get high, you don’t have time to be rubbing two sticks together, so we have to get inventive.
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Originally we took the leads out of pencils, stuck a long piece in each side of the electrical outlet, twisted a piece of toilet paper around a shorter piece of lead, and used that to get across the longer lead in the outlet. You have to have a gentle touch or you’ll blow out the power. As the sparks fly, you catch them on a twist of toilet paper to use as a match. In the Eastham Unit you’d think you were seeing the lightning bolts of an approaching thunderstorm, and it would only be smokers lighting up and the arcs reflecting in the windows. The problem is that non-smokers don’t appreciate the smoke, and occasionally an electrical outlet will catch on fire. Try to explain to maintenance how your outlet spontaneously combusted. Not fun at all.
If you cut a pencil in half and sharpen one end, you can put a razor blade (out of a safety razor) in the flat end (make sure it touches the lead) and plug that into one side of an electrical outlet. Take a second razor blade and attach it to a thin coated wire (you can use uncoated wire as long as you wear shoes so it won’t shock you), then lightly brush the uncoated tip of the wire against the point of the pencil and catch the sparks on the tip of a twist of toilet paper to make a match. If you add a bit of cotton to the twist of toilet paper, it lights easier and makes less smoke. Keep in mind that pencils will catch on fire if you hold the wire to the point too long; they also blow up.
Tattoo guns are made by wrapping a long bolt with wire scavenged out of old fan motors. It takes about 150 wraps if you don’t want the gun to overheat. You’ll also need some insulated wire and ink pen parts, a magnet, a metal band, and a bunch of scavenged string from elastic boxer brands. No, you can’t plug it into the wall. They usually run off the radio or fan transformers. The needles come from wire brushes in maintenance. You can buy a whole plug for a $12.00 bag of coffee, but it’s a job to get them sharp. You’ll need sandpaper.
Tattoo ink is easily made by burning petroleum jelly in an enclosed area to catch the soot. You take the soot and add a few drops of baby shampoo to create a dark black ink. This use of low-quality homemade ink is why prison tattoos tend to be inconsistent in shade and also tend to spread a bit.
Yes, much of this is very dangerous. We’ve had explosions and fire and some pretty bad injuries, but that’s rare. The simple fact of prison life is that if we don’t break the rules we have very little to live for. Many of us are never going to be free anyway. What do we have to lose? Not much.