Prisoners’ Inventions

This project is an ongoing collaboration between Angelo, an incarcerated artist, and Temporary Services (Brett Bloom & Marc Fischer).

We asked Angelo to illustrate and describe the many incredible inventions made by prisoners that he had made, seen, or heard about over the years. These inventions are attempts to fill needs that the restrictive environment of the prison tries to suppress. The inventions cover everything from homemade sex dolls, condoms, salt and pepper shakers to chess sets, privacy curtains and ways of communicating between cells. We collaborated on this project with Angelo for over two years to get it going. We had many additional collaborators who made a book, exhibition of re-created inventions and a prison cell possible.

Use the links to the pages to the right to get an overview of the project thus far.


Angelo’s Introduction

When first approached with the idea of illustrating examples of inmate inventiveness, I was skeptical, thinking that there would be little of real interest to depict. When I set my mind to the task, though, I recognized the surprising range of inventions and innovations that I had witnessed. I had just become so used to it all that the uniqueness no longer registered.

Writing this book was a revelation. To be able to present these examples of human inventiveness to you, I had first to discover this technology all over again. If some of what’s presented here seems unimpressive, keep in mind that deprivation is a way of life in prison. Even the simplest of innovations presents unusual challenges, not just to make an object but in some instances to create the tools to make it and find the materials to make it from. The prison environment is designed and administered for the purpose of suppressing such inventiveness. Officially, the devices described here are considered contraband, subject to confiscation in routine cell searches. But inmates are resilient if nothing else—what’s taken today will be remade by tomorrow, and the cycle goes on and on.

To give credit to where credit is due, I owe my knowledge of the inventions and tricks presented here to my many cellies, who shared information with me and with whom I worked to develop some ideas. Victor, one of my first cellies, introduced me to the concept of making chess pieces from toilet paper mache; I had known about paper mache since high school, but might never have thought of using it for gaming pieces. Little John, though still new to prison, was wildly in love with all the technological lore he could acquire and delighted in mass-producing stingers (immersion heaters) for anyone who wanted or needed one, his hands a mass of cuts and burns, testimony to his inexperience in making them but never a deterrent. Billy was likewise obsessed with making quality fish lines for anyone who needed one; the lines were so frequently confiscated that one cop was heard to remark, “I’m surprised that he has any clothes left to make these things.” Ron, who I taught to make paper mache chess pieces, turned out exquisite sets just as fast as the cops could confiscate them, with each succeeding set becoming more elaborate and beautiful—his reasoning being, it’s the cops’ job to keep us down, and ours to show them that they can’t. Then there’s Randy, who possessed the spirit of Thomas Edison, utilizing existing knowledge but also blazing trails that few other inmates could follow; Bobby, whose every waking moment was spent devising and revising solutions to the most basic needs, ransacking all of his (and the state’s) property for raw materials in the process; and Jerry, who may well be the Leonardo da Vinci of this age, a feisty genius forever finding simple solutions to seemingly impossible problems, hailed for his artistry, reviled for being Jerry, battered down by inmates and staff but always bouncing back, unconquered, unbowed, and always with a new idea.