July 21, 2002

The Points That Prisoners Can Make

Stolen from kitchen or infirmary. Broken off bunk frame or pried from Plexiglas desk cover. Secreted inside shoe or between belly and elastic waistband and spirited through ineffective metal detectors. Rubbed, then, for hours and hours and hours against cement floor or brick wall until able to slice or pierce: a weapon now exists where before there was none.

Abstracted from their original context of gritty Rikers Island cellblock, the shanks in these photographs show the craft and creativity spawned by inmate anger, spite and fear. Some prisons are full of inmate weapons hidden inside mattresses, under sand in the exercise yard, in crevices or window ledges. Others — newer prisons, especially, it seems — have relatively few. All are contraband, confiscated by corrections officers when found during routine pat frisks, cell searches or (seldom) after a fight.

Most often, shanks (”shivs” is an older slang term) are not used to murder or to be flourished in flashy knife battles or to coerce weak inmates into sex, as movies would have it. They are used to conduct the business of gangs, usually by quietly ”sticking” personae non grata (debtors, turncoats, rivals) in the back, buttocks or leg or by slicing them on the head to teach them some kind of lesson. Typically, the shank is then passed from the assailant to a confederate (a good shank is valuable); prison officers find only blood on the floor and a wounded inmate who won’t name his attacker, who insists it was ”an accident,” because he knows that ratting out his assailant will only make it worse next time. (When I was working as an officer at Sing Sing to research my book ”Newjack,” I once saw an extra-tall inmate walk into a low-hanging pipe; I sent him to the infirmary, where, he told me, nothing he said could convince the prison nurse that he had given himself the big gash across his forehead.) When gang power in prison is in dispute, tit-for-tat stabbings can be a daily occurrence.

Jack Henry Abbott wrote lasciviously of an inmate who ”gutted” an officer with a 14-inch blade to the belly. But it is more typical of prisons that wounds are inflicted by inmates upon other inmates, that the knives are neither large nor magnificent and that prisoner innovation is squandered on tools that cause pain.