Prisoners’ Inventions | a guide to prison life

Battery Cigarette Lighter

What comes to your mind if someone tells you: “Imagine that your house spans six by nine feet, your mattress is just two inches thick, you are known to your neighbors by an identification number, and items most consider crucial to everyday existence are outlawed”. It is difficult just try to imagine life in such conditions, but reality is always powerful than fiction and these are the conditions in which prisoners live in so many prisons around the US and the rest of the world.

About life in prisons, at the book Living in prison: a history of the correctional system with an insider’s view written by Stephen Stanko, Wayne Gillespie and Gordon A. Crews, we can read:

Prisons may be differentiated between state and federal facilities. There were 1,375 state and 125 federal prisons throughout the United States in 1995. Furthermore, prisons are also distinguished by level of security […] A prison’s level of security is determined by a variety of factors such as the design of the facility, the amount of staffing, and operating procedures.

We also have the same feeling that can be recognized on Victoria R. DeRosia‘s book Living inside prison walls, when she wonders what is life in prison like? and she adds that most of the 250 or so million Americans have little idea what life behind bars is all about. Even though some of us may know someone who is doing time, or works inside prisons walls, a realistic picture of prison life is absent for most people. So, trying to imagine how living in prison must be was the leit motif behind the artists’ collective Temporary Services when in 2001, they asked an incarcerated artist named Angelo to share with them the ways in which inmates adapt to their confinement. Angelo responded with over one hundred pages of meticulously detailed ink drawings and text.

Tattoo Gun

Tattoo Gun drawing

The resulting book Prisoners’ Inventions, is a guide to prison life, and many of the documented items—such as cigarette lighters, condoms, even alarm clocks—are considered contraband. In the book Angelo also includes anecdotes describing their creation and use. He wrote:

To be able to present these examples of human inventiveness to you, I had first to discover this technology all over again. If some of what’s presented here seems unimpressive, keep in mind that deprivation is a way of life in prison. Even the simplest of innovations presents unusual challenges, not just to make an object but in some instances to create the tools to make it and find the materials to make it from. The prison environment is designed and administered for the purpose of suppressing such inventiveness.

The situation that Angelo described is common ground in mostly all prisons: the devices such as cigarette lighter, contraband radios and tatto guns are considered contraband, subject to confiscation in routine cell searches. All the drawings and related research inside prison’s walls are a call for attention on this dehumanizing environment.

Sanctuary [lighter hidden in a bible]

At the Prisoner Guidebook of Ingham County Jail Inmate Guide, we can read:

Upon entering this facility, all personal property shall be taken from you. Small valuables and jewelry shall be secured in the Receiving area to be returned to you upon your release. You may also release the property to another person upon execution of a property release form; the Lobby must have the property release form prior to the person picking it up.

And they add that possessing contraband [items not considered to be weapons, escape tools, life threatening implements or dangerous drugs] is a minor rule violations and punishment may include lockdown for no more than forty-eight hours and loss of privileges for up to two weeks.

According to the South Dakota Inmate Living Guide, they classify as Contraband the following:

– Any item not authorized for you to have is contraband. Approved items may be contraband if they have been altered, are possessed in higher quantity than authorized, are used in ways for which they were not intended, or obtained through an unapproved source.
– You will be held responsible for contraband found on you, in your living quarters, in a storage space assigned to you or at your work site. Contraband will be confiscated and you will be subject to disciplinary action.

In the project Prisoners’ Inventions, there are illustrated many incredible inventions made by prisoners to fill needs that the restrictive environment of the prison tries to supress.

Contraband Radio

Cell Desk drawing

Cell Desk

If we focus on the most common insight, people think that prisoners only create things to escape, but with this project, we can see that the objects that prisoners need to make their life a little bit more comfortable, are banal objects, more humanized, such as a pencil box or simply a chess set to transform the world they’re live in. Nato Thompson, curator of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art where the Prisoner’s Invention objects were exhibited, just put it with this words:

Each of the prisoners’ objects “tells a story, points to a situation. They give humanity to people in prison, showing how creative, how desperate they are.

The project makes us think on how people transform their worlds. And all the possibilities that lies in our immagination.

– Angelo’s drawings of his cell can be visited here
– Angelo’s original drawings with instructions in PDF format, here.
– More info about Temporary Services


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