Geek Out

The DIY Wizards Of San Quentin Prison

Prison Hacks are the big house’s answer to Gizmodo’s homemod. Prison is designed to be uncomfortable — it’s prison, after all. But even incarceration can’t lock up the spirit of human ingenuity. What prisoners do with extremely limited resources is incredible.

Problem #1

The chow hall undercooked the chicken. Again. Rare beef is wonderful, but rare chicken is like chewing on soggy boots. You don’t have a stove in your cell, so what are you going to do?

If you’re like Marvin Caldwell you’ll wrap up your undercooked bird in some foil, take it back to your cell, and you’ll make an “oven” out of toilet paper. That’s right: toilet paper.

The TP is rolled into a cylinder, folded in at the ends, and lit so it burns from the inside out. That slows it down and intensifies the heat. Inmates hold their undercooked meal above the flame, and voila, you can get it as hot and crispy as you like.

Problem #2

Inmates can only get special TVs (which you’ll hear about later this week) that have no speakers. They can listen on their headphones, but then it’s hard to hear announcements over the intercom. When you’re in prison, if you’re called for and you don’t show up, you are in very very deep shit. What to do?

Shahid, who is an assistant to San Quentin’s Muslim cleric, talked to a buddy who knew a bit about wiring. He managed to hack into Shahid’s speakerless TV and splice the audio over to his radio. Now he can listen quietly and not miss announcements. Hopefully his cellie shares his taste in local programming.

Problem #3

Sometimes warm water just ain’t good enough. Inmates are allowed to have hotpots, which heat the water, but only to a certain, pre-boiling temperature. Sure, that restriction is in place to keep inmates from using water as a weapon, but there’s nothing like tepid soup to spur innovation.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Stinger. I’ll let Marvin Caldwell show you how it works, but I will say that it’s amazing what a little scrap metal and some basic wiring can do. I thought for sure it would melt the plastic cup, but Marvin assured me it’s not an issue. (P.S. Please don’t try this at home.)

Lockdown is all about the technology inside prisons, from weapons to hacks, contraband to cooking and everything in between. We’re bringing it to you directly from San Quentin State Prison in California. Tomorrow we’ll be tackling Prison Weapons, and believe me when I tell you that you don’t want to miss it.

Special thanks to Terry Thornton, Dana Toyama and Sam Robinson of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation for facilitating this visit. Thank you to Sergeant Don McGraw, Officer Eric Patao and Officer Gino Whitehall for all of their time and help. And thanks to inmates Sam Johnson Sr, Richard Lawrence Alley, Shahid and Marvin Caldwell for sharing a slice of their lives with us.

Video: Bill Bowles, Woody Allen Jang, Brent Rose


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