Gizmodo Goes To Jail: The Many Insane Flavours Of Improvised Prison Weapons

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Heading to the place where a prison’s homicide evidence is kept, you might expect to see a few sharpened objects — maybe a bludgeon or two. You would be underprepared.

Officer Eric Patao works in the Investigative Services Unit, where all these weapons currently reside. He investigates the gangs that are constantly stirring up trouble at San Quentin in northern California; he does his best to keep them unarmed, but the weapons he showed us — a small samples of the ones he’s confiscated — look like objects out of a horror movie.

“We discover these items on a weekly basis, especially after a large-scale incident,” says Officer Patao. After a riot or an attempt on somebody’s life, they find a lot of these. Inmates throw them down the cellblock’s tiers to try to distance themselves from the weapon so they can’t be tied to it.

Toothbrush weapons are the most common, because the stock is so readily available — everybody’s got one, and you can make a toothbrush shiv in under a minute. “Inmates get word in the canteen the night before that something’s going to happen,” Patao says. “They can break the brush head off and sharpen the shaft in seconds.” Some do it just to protect themselves in case they are attacked; some use them as weapons to assault others.

As a bonus we wanted to give you a quick look at the kinds of weapons the officers in San Quentin carry. On the ground, none of the guards have guns. Those are reserved for the guys up high, where the prisons wouldn’t be able to get them. The multi-round launcher is capable not only of shooting those gargantuan rubber bullets you see in the video, but also of firing teargas grenades and other projectiles.

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 investigating phones in jail, and some of the things you hear are guaranteed to shock you.

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

This story originally posted on Gizmodo in 2011