Crime and Contraband Inside Prisons

One of the main goals of locking a criminal in a prison is not just to punish them, but to keep them from performing the illegal activities which led to their incarceration to begin with. It would seem that round the clock surveillance, constant supervision from guards, and a strictly structured schedule would create an environment where crime of any sort is virtually impossible. In spite of this, American prisons are fraught with criminal activity, and some prisons even have higher crime rates than their neighboring cities.

Assault remains one of the most common crimes performed in prisons. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly 10 inmates out of every 5000 in high security prisons (or 1 in 500) are the victims of serious assaults every year. At some points, that rate has tripled to 30 inmates out of every 5000 for less serious assaults. For the same prisoners, there is an average of one serious assault and nearly 25 less serious assaults on staff members. With 2.5 million prisoners, this means that around 330,000 prison inmates or staff are the subjects of some type of assault every year.

Although the murder rate in prisons has declined in the previous decade, they still occur with some frequency. In 1980, for example, there were more than 50 inmates murdered out of every 100,000, compared to 11 murders in the general population for every 100,000 civilians. This meant that you were five times more likely to be murdered inside of prison than outside. Fortunately, the nationwide homicide rate of prisons has dropped significantly, to just 5 in 100,000. While the majority of assaults in prisons are physical beatings, many of these murders are carried out with homemade (or rather, prison-made) weapons.

Sexual Assault
Sexual abuse in prison has recently received a large amount of attention in the media, but there are largely varying statistics on its rate of occurrence. However, most sources agree that rape occurs much less frequently than is popularly believed. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has estimated that somewhere between 12-14% of inmates have experienced some form of sexual abuse, although much fewer are actually reported. Some sources claim that at least a quarter of inmates have been raped while incarcerated, but when surveyed, typically less than 5% of prisoners report ever having been sexually assaulted in any way. Judging from interviews, there seems to be a consensus among many prisoners that, while occasionally a forcible rape does occur, most sexual activity in prisons is consensual. It seems that most “prison rape” takes place when new or weak inmates are pressured and manipulated into sex to obtain protection.

Prisons tend to be very strict on keeping actual weapons from entering their walls, even to the point that corrections officers are forbidden from carrying anything other than OC (pepper) spray, batons, flashlights, handcuffs, and occasionally stun-guns or tasers; only guards stationed in towers or transportation vehicles are allowed the use of firearms, in order to keep prisoners from obtaining them. Nonetheless, inmates are known for constructing creative weaponry out of the materials available to them. The most common weapons utilized are sharpened pieces of material like toothbrushes or pieces of furniture, often called “shivs” or “shanks,” that inmates use to stab their victims in close contact. Some shanks are nothing more than broken glass, with a cloth wrapped around part of it to protect the user’s hand, or spears carved from wood.shanks

One inmate allegedly made a crossbow from newspaper and elastic, and fashioned a bolt for it out of a “papier mâché” concoction. The inmate then used the crossbow, which was later featured and tested on the television show Mythbusters, to shoot another inmate locked in the cell across from him.

Lorenzo Pollard, an inmate in St. Louis, is known for constructing a pair of nunchucks from two legs of a wooden chair tied together by a bed sheet. As ridiculous as this weapon sounds, Pollard used the nunchucks to fight off several guards, bust through a window, and escape from the prison grounds. He was recaptured within just a few hours, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless.

Because of the less obvious nature of drug offenses inside of prison, it is difficult to discover the statistics of drug use in prison. While a murder victim will inevitably be found, drug use often goes unnoticed. Some drugs are smuggled in by visitors, but this is made difficult by thorough searches of any guests. Visitors are also supervised while they interact with their incarcerated companions, and those caught face strict penalties. Despite this, drugs are frequently discovered in searches. Prescription medications are some of the most commonly found contraband in prisons, likely because they are more discreet than other drugs. However, even marijuana, with its recognizable odor and smoke, is widely used in prisons, with several pounds confiscated in American prisons every year. Hundreds of grams of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine have also turned up in searches along with hundreds of gallons of “hooch,” alcohol brewed by inmates.

Because of the difficulty of visitors smuggling drugs in large quantities, inmates have discovered various creative ways of receiving their vices. Alcohol is frequently made inside prison cells, using fruit, juice, and yeast (usually obtained from old bread), which is then left to brew in garbage bags, or sometimes in toilets. There have also been plenty of prison staff prosecuted for smuggling narcotics to inmates. These guards are usually bribed by inmates to meet with their friends or relatives outside of prison to obtain the contraband, along with the guard’s fee for delivering it. In several instances, people have been caught attempting to throw drugs over the fence to their incarcerated friends. In one particular case, a man attempted to shoot an arrow, with a bag of marijuana attached, into a second floor window. He missed, and the arrow was soon retrieved, after which the man was identified by an informant and arrested at his home.

Crimes Performed by Prison Staff
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