Violence Is Currency: A Pacifist Ex-Con's Guide To Prison Weaponry

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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.


With the antenna up my sleeve and the magazines chafing my ribs, I joined my party in the neutral patch of grass in the middle of the yard. There we met the group of men who were helping their court member collect his bill. It reminded me of Napoleon sitting down with the czar on a raft in the middle of a border river. This central clearing was used for such resolutions every day. After the appropriate declarations of force had been made and sabers had been sufficiently rattled, a solution was reached that did not leave anyone hurt. Our side did not permit their side to harm the debtor, but the debt was acknowledged. A collection was taken to pay the bill, and no blood was shed. The social order had been restored, but only after the prospect of violence had arisen.

By then, I'd had three years in and seen some things. During my first month, my own cellmate was viciously stabbed through the cheek a few feet away from me. His tongue was cut in half, and his face was scarred for life. He was one of the strongest guys in the jail, able to lift a concrete table; his father was a "button man," a Mafia luminary whom no one was allowed to touch without permission from the boss, just like in Goodfellas. But my cellie wasn't in the movies, and two sneaky Irishmen took him down after he tried to seize command of a court in the yard mostly populated by old men with lots of vowels in their names. The court had been claimed by the Italians for a long time, long enough that John Gotti himself had once been its captain when he served a short sentence in Green Haven in the '70s (we used to exercise with "John's weights"). Now my cellmate thought he had the clout to run the place, but he got "sent out" instead. He was Italian, and he had a good criminal lineage, but he was rushing things and ruffled the wrong feathers.


Some old Italians got together and made the decision, ordering the act for a moonless evening. Two Irishmen were picked for the job, on the theory that the victim would be expecting only Italian attackers. One was there to distract my broad-shouldered cellie while the other wielded the shank. (Presumably, the hitmen were paid; it wasn't their beef, after all.) Moonless or not, I was on hand when the evening turned violent—close enough that I now know the sound a man makes when he breathes through a bloody hole in his cheek. I had just started out my sentence, and this was my primer on how violence in prison operates. I had never seen such an explosion of blood and teeth before.

Lucky for my cellie, the order was not to "take him off the count," which means death. The Irish enforcer who took the commission from the old men was no amateur. He already had several life sentences to his name—some earned in prison—so another would have meant only more time in solitary. He was still due to die in prison, and considering his lifestyle, probably not of old age. Dangerous cat.


Jim, the 15-year veteran in Florida's system, says he has seen incidents like this many times. The extremity of prison violence is due to the perceived low value of a prisoner's life compared with that of a free man, and the absence of significant consequences for causing such harm. After all, in the outside world, one of the primary reasons people rarely resort to violence is an innate fear of … prison. "The inmate body has no such fear," he says. "They are already accustomed to a lack of personal freedoms, many serving lifelong sentences with no regard for the 'what if's' of getting caught. Many also are experienced in the ways of violence. Growing up in it, born of it, swimming in it and thriving on it. Quite frankly, they are good at it. This type of force scares even the governing body itself."

I witnessed a few pedestrian fistfights while serving my time—mostly over questions of honor, when neither party knew how to back down or laugh something off—but that occurred only among the low-functioning prisoners. Society inside is hierarchical, and none of the skilled, influential convicts ever allowed situations to escalate like that. Paradoxically, though, their status and thus their ability to avoid violence were largely a function of how much prior violence had been attributed to them. Many had committed some dreadful act in their youth. I was immediately told that the easiest way to sail through my 10 years was to stab someone in my first.


That idea is a pop-culture cliché at this point, but there is some truth to the value of a violent reputation: The faster you acquire it, the longer it serves you. Men who had "shut down yards" inspired respect there, or at least fear. However, much of the value of being a "stand-up guy" comes when making transactions—you're respected for your honesty and for standing by your word, but also for never backing down from a challenge. Doing something as commercial as dealing drugs in prison is simply impossible without being respected as a stand-up guy or as a member of a gang. But since I did not "hustle" in any way—meaning that I did not sell or buy much of anything—there was little need for me to build a violent reputation. I didn't back down from challenges, which are almost universally bluffs and tests, nor initiate them. And I escaped prison without a mark on me.

Which is not the case for everyone. Scarring is so common inside that the varieties have names. A "telephone cut" is from ear to cheek, administered to someone for using the wrong phone; if there's any kind of phone scarcity, gangs claim them all, another typical consequence of supply and demand. "Curtains" are scars going down from eyebrow to cheek. A matching set usually indicates a formal punishment, as the victim has to be held down. "Gangster slashes" are the random results of going "gun to gun," when enemies duel with razors. When challenging someone, it is considered good form to bring an extra weapon for your opponent, and there are "seconds" who make sure that the fight remains one on one.


As mad as this all sounds, it's worth noting that dueling only recently fell out of favor in Western civilization. Even in the last century, German students relished the practice of saber dueling. There are men alive today who are proud of the nicks on their faces, acquired over a question of honor at Heidelberg or some other German university. Prison violence is just a way of expressing something still inherent in our nature.

The cops—who have far more to lose, as Captain Jim pointed out—have to be more strategic in their deployment of force. After all, the authorities running New York State prisons and all other prisons are drastically outnumbered. According to the guards' union, there are 17,478 correction officers working in the prison system, overseeing 55,791 inmates. If all the prisoners revolted at once, as happened in Attica in 1971, the cops would lose the battle despite their batons. That year, several of the more influential and popular prisoners had been severely beaten, and a '60s political mindset still lingered: The prisoners wanted better conditions and access to things like fresh air, healthier food, and educational and vocational opportunities. The guards lost control of the yard after a bit of violence went sour. The prisoners called their bluff. Things spiraled out of control from there.


Of course, the negotiations attempted by those rebellious prisoners failed, and the National Guard was called in; bullets tore through crowds of people, killing convicts and captured officers alike. Only afterward did New York State institute sweeping reforms, many echoing the prisoners' demands. But only after.

Losing control of a prison is the ultimate failure of the penal craft. To keep control, the cops have to be able to project force without relying too heavily on it, and they do so by making examples of people and by informal "talkings-to" that don't leave marks for litigious prisoners to enter as evidence in their lawsuits. (And also, apparently, by swinging my own boot at me.) For the most part, prison guards are ordinary people who are doing a hard and unpleasant job, and who genuinely wish to avoid such confrontations while still remaining in charge; there are, of course, those who seek out the work to satisfy a sadistic bent. Every prison seemed to have one bad apple whose nickname was invariably "Stickman," for his propensity to wield a baton. However, the best-established and most-respected officers made a show of not wearing one.


Even in an interaction with an officer, the violence often has a transactional root. In my first year, a dreadful incident shut down my prison: A convict with a sentence commonly called "lights out" (his parole date was beyond his life expectancy) threw boiling oil in an officer's face. This melts the skin right off. The place went into lockdown mode, which means that no one leaves his cell for any reason. Food came in pre-made Styrofoam meal boxes; every cell was searched, every yard, every convict down to his anus. All the little extras that prisoners acquire, sundry items like coffee mugs and soup spoons that are valuable inside simply due to their scarcity, were confiscated. The cops were obviously not looking for the oil or its wielder, who was in the hospital himself after "resisting."

Locking down a joint is the accepted method for re-establishing control, and I went through it several times in several places over my decade, though that first episode had the most monstrous precipitant. Shutting down a jail wreaks havoc on its budget: The nurses are paid overtime to hand out food, and the clerical staff makes a rare appearance in the cell blocks to issue toilet paper. No one showers until it's over. So lockdowns are done only when necessary, and the superintendent has to gauge the mood of the population to know when one is called for.


But why did that particular prisoner find it necessary to attack an officer in such a terrible way? Money, of course. In gambling operations—and sports tickets are very common inside—there needs to be a "bank," a cell in which hundreds of packs of cigarettes are concealed for paying out potential winners. The officer who got splashed ("190'd," in common parlance, for the temperature necessary to boil oil; not to be confused with "buck-80'd," which means a scar requiring 180 stitches) had found the bank and confiscated it, costing a complex organization a lot of money and undermining their ability to make good on bets. The flow of capitalism needed to be restored. They weren't getting their Newports back, but if they were still going to be taken seriously as a gambling operation, the crew had to commit this dreadful act of violence. The man who threw the pot of oil was chosen because he was never getting out anyway. Nothing to lose, and a reputation to gain. He didn't even try to get away with it. Rather different from the explosions of temper that the ART programs intends to cure.

For centuries, philosophers like Foucault have eloquently argued that prison is merely a microcosm of the society that populates it; the role of violence inside is the role of violence outside, the reason for war and terrorism—status and power. My dreadful day in 2007, with a magazine taped to my stomach and an antenna in my shaking hand, put enough of the ultimate currency into my account to carry me through to the end. I was never tested again. Thank god it went no further. You only really know if you will pass when it happens, whether in a trench or a moonlit patch of grass in Heidelberg or a prison yard. Good thing, too, because the consequences can be expensive.



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Daniel Genis is working on a memoir of his incarcerated reading life for Penguin/Viking, titled 1,046 for the number of books he read while in prison. You can also follow him on Twitter here and read his other work here.


Image by Jim Cooke.

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