The most common weapon inside is simply a can top. Pulled off a tin of beans and folded over, it doesn't even need to be sharpened to leave a jagged scar. A shank, also known as a shiv, is not for cutting but for stabbing. It's called a "gun" in jailhouse vernacular, and the most valuable kind is fashioned out of materials that don't activate a metal detector. Prison armorers make a good living shaping brass (sourced from structural elements) and aluminum (soda cans, mostly) into knives, though fiberglass and even wood can work, too. Most shanks are made for one specific purpose and disposed of immediately thereafter; getting caught with one is a year in solitary.
If you're looking to bludgeon someone, filling doubled-up socks with bars of soap or a lock or a can of corn makes for an effective weapon. I saw a man's arm broken with a tin of black beans with one of these, after which a scavenger retrieved the dented can and ate the evidence. Heated liquids are employed for sneak attacks, usually on sleeping people. But the most exotic weapon I saw was a lit cigarette butt dropped on the floor and immediately stamped flat with a boot. The melting filter became a plane that, upon cooling, developed a bit of an edge, like a very sharp and serrated blade. That one belonged on MacGyver. I never witnessed it in action, but I did see another feat of improvisation: In 2010, a man who was cut with a can lid only five feet away from me proceeded to snap his own glasses in half and use the two arms to poke his assailant mercilessly.
Prison violence can also get very Neolithic. My friend was hit in the back of the head with a rock, settling a dispute over a bench in front of a TV. He lost consciousness, woke up, and pretended it never happened. The snoring Dominican got it much worse. It was my first week living in a dormitory after seven years in a cell. The older man was a sweetheart, but he snored at an incredible volume. A crew of gang kids had had enough and filled a sock with batteries, whipping the sleeping man in the face. He sat up with his eyes and mouth wide open, and fell back into unconsciousness. I had to call for help without ratting out the perpetrators, which was difficult. Whatever damage was done to the poor guy was serious enough for him never to return from the hospital. Another man I saw stabbed in the lung in the yard of a different prison was actually helicoptered to a special trauma unit to save his life. I ran into him years later, when he was telling the story with himself as the stabber and his attacker as the victim.
As dreadful as this litany of viciousness and barbarism sounds, absolutely none of it was spontaneous. Every incident I witnessed in prison, except for the melees that we had to break up when I worked in a unit for the mentally ill, was premeditated and done with purpose, however twisted that purpose was. The violence functioned as a tool for preserving order, whether to maintain the hierarchies of prisoners or to reassert the authority of the guards. It was the best form of currency we had.
Deep inside a prison in the upper reaches of New York State, a friend of mine learned he was scheduled for ART class; pleased, he showed up with a pencil and pad, only to learn that the acronym stood for "Aggression Replacement Therapy." Every prisoner with a hint of violence in his criminal history takes this 90-day-long course, which is taught by other prisoners trained in its techniques. Even nonviolent convicts can earn a spot in the class if they're caught up in a jailhouse incident involving a mere soupçon of aggression. Many prisoners end up taking the class multiple times, because something happens after they "graduate," as something so often does in prison.
During my 10-year bid (I got out in February), I saw two cold-blooded murders, several knife duels, many gang attacks, and innumerable petty acts of violence meant to straighten out chains of command or fix broken transactions. It's a violent place, so very few prisoners escape the grips of ART. Given that my own sentence was for armed robbery, I certainly didn't.
Outside, within two years of succumbing to heroin addiction, I'd gone from working at a literary agency to robbing people with a pocketknife. Personally disgusted by violence, I was a very reluctant and non-violent robber, announcing how sorry I was even in the midst of my crimes and once simply giving up after being told to fuck off by a tiny woman behind the register in a tea shop. I used the same pocketknife I once went camping with as a weapon. In each of the robberies that wasn't done across a counter, I contritely returned my victims' wallets after snagging the cash. As a result, the newspapers dubbed me "the Apologetic Bandit." The judge gave me a decade to think about it anyway. While an explosive temper and itchy knife-hand were not exactly my problem (it was rather clearly heroin addiction), I took the ART course eight years into my sentence. I had been put on the waiting list immediately, but apparently given a low priority.
The class is intended to show convicts how to deal with their various feelings without resorting to violence. This is accomplished by putting on a number of skits in which inmates practice the sort of interactions that regular, unincarcerated citizens are able to navigate without cutting one another with can tops. I remember 10 stages, escalating from "introducing yourself" to "asking a question" to "resolving a conflict." Counting backward was a key tactic.
Overall, the idea is that those of us with violent histories just need to learn how to handle our emotions and control our hair-trigger tempers—we brutes reach for shanks or locks in socks solely due to our lack of restraint. That is the program's official premise: Violence, at least a prisoner's violence, is a lapse in self-control and a disregard for societal norms, and can therefore be "corrected."
It never occurred to anyone during my ART class that violence might just be a tool for enforcing societal norms inside. In a prison economy, violence, and the ability to project violence, is what preserves the integrity of both sides of every transaction. In a prison society, violence is how prisoners sort themselves into hierarchies, the top guys distinguishing themselves by never having to employ violence themselves.
ART was an irritating 90 days, but mandatory, and the consequences of refusing a program are heavy. Maybe I learned something, though. When I was getting beaten with my own boot, for instance, I thought I demonstrated a remarkable degree of self-control, even if I did neglect to count backward. This happened when I was processed into solitary—a tense affair, since most prisoners don't want to go. You are told to "grab a wall," and it is made clear that removing even a finger will be considered an act of aggression against an officer, at which point you will be "dropped," so it's a good time to pay close attention.
In this instance, I was being boxed around the ears with my own footwear because I'd defiantly handed the officer my left boot with my right hand and not the other way around. My clothing was being taken away, in case I'd sewn something into the seams—a slow and menacing procedure that concludes with a cavity check. Naked in a room of angry cops, unable to see what is happening behind you: The process is frankly and deliberately terrifying.
Everyone who does time experiences a little of this—or a lot, if you're inexperienced or hot-tempered—because that's how the cops test you, how they determine if you're the type to cause problems. What I personally experienced over 10 years was about as minimal as it gets. The guard wielding the boot did not fall into a rage and flail away; he didn't even leave a mark on me. He was just reminding me that the Department of Corrections held a virtual monopoly on the ultimate prison commodity: violence. I did not take my hand off the wall, and I did not complain about it, and no one bothered me again. In fact, the boot-swinger gave me his newspaper to read later that day, before I got my books. Just the daily business, nothing personal to it.
As America is a civilized country, there are actually very explicit limitations on how much violence can be visited on those in custody. A man I knew whose eye was permanently injured during a rather unprofessional incident received a $70,000 payout after suing the state. Recently, I was contacted by an expert on the subject, a Florida Department of Corrections veteran (I'll call him Jim) who'd earned the rank of captain (which, in your average prison, would make him roughly third in command). He quickly taught me that the question of violence is just as important to the overseers, who realize that they can't just blindly use the overwhelming force they have at their disposal.
"The threat of retribution or punishment by the inmate body carries with it much more dangerous complications," he wrote to me. "While cops/security have the capability to (and will) cause great bodily harm and or death, these incidences are minimal in comparison to the amount of cop/inmate conflicts that never approach that level of violence. There is too much to lose for the free man to take it to that type of level without concern for the repercussions." That is 15 years of experience speaking.
Violence is currency, as Jim knows; a glut of it causes inflation and a resultant loss in value. In the yard, the convicts nonetheless accumulated their little piles of force by building reputations. Capitalism thrives in prison despite the lack of access to conventional money. Drugs, pornography, portraits, food and services of every type are bought and sold with packs of cigarettes and stamps, the currency of exchange. But behind every transaction hung the specter of violence, whether projected through heinous personal image or maintained by a larger gang. Those who did not understand this and tried to somehow disrupt the market did not get paid, or got paid in an entirely different and profoundly unpleasant manner.
The locked-off world of a prison is a reflection of greater society in every sense, and the economy is no exception: The principles may be expressed primitively inside, but the system functions identically. Consider America's fiat currency. Long ago, a dollar could be exchanged for a certain amount of gold. Then it was silver. Then nothing. Starting in 1968, a dollar was worth only a dollar because the U.S. said it was. So why does the rest of the world still believe us? Because of our willingness to project American power across the globe. The U.S. has intercontinental ballistic missiles; we had prison shanks.
Then came the day in 2007 when my friends and I all went to the yard with magazines taped around our torsos and under our shirts. A copy of National Geographic makes for the best armor because of the glossy photo paper. ART class may have taught us how to avoid stabbing each other over spontaneous misunderstandings, but in fact, just about all of the violence I saw in prison was deliberate, planned, and rooted in a transactional disagreement. I thought I could avoid it all, but on that day, I too held a weapon: an aluminum antenna sharpened to a point on a concrete floor, with a rag wound around the end for grip. I had no idea how to use it and hoped I wouldn't have to, but I'd received a physical threat over someone else's unpaid bill, and I did not wish to be a victim.
The yard was cut up into 20 or so little paddies, with matching exercise equipment on each one. Called "courts," they were sanctioned by the authorities, since each one had a "captain" listed somewhere who was responsible for snow removal or the discovery of concealed weaponry. Being a member of the court entitled me to work out there and enjoy a central base of operations, but it also came with obligations. On that day, those obligations were serious: A fellow member was threatened with grievous bodily injury over drugs he never paid for. I did not think this was really my problem, but I also did not want to lose my place on the court. I geared up with the rest of the guys.