Most of the prison fights seen in movies involve some pretty elaborate weaponry, but in Washington state prisons the violence isn't quite that dramatic, says Gabe Morales, lead gangs instructor at the Washington State Academy for police agencies.
The violence may not be as sensational as we think, but the weapons do tend to be creative. One of the more popular weapons, according to Morales, is a knife constructed from razor blades - which inmates are sometimes given to shave. The blades can be attached to a melted-down toothbrush covered with newspaper or cloth on the other end, making for a pretty able weapon.
"The inmates are pretty ingenious when making [weapons]," Morales says.
This was the case in August 2011 in a confrontation between offenders Michael Suggs and Jerome Kennedy. The pair squared off at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) in Walla Walla, with Suggs, motivated by gang issues, trying to stab Kennedy with a sharpened long-handled toothbrush, according to a penitentiary incidence report.
Morales says other common weapons in state prisons include those made from building materials that inmates can acquire, such as loose chunks of cement from the courtyard or a piece of metal from a prison cell.
"A piece of cement in their sock makes a pretty effective club," Morales says. "You can knock somebody out with that."
Morales says dismantling a cell to make a weapon is a lot easier to do in older prisons, because the building materials are not as sturdy, and the set-up makes it harder for prison officials to monitor inmate activities. For example, Morales has seen six-inch bits of metal torn off a rotting building turned into swords.
Older buildings that are not up to code are of particular concern to Morales, like the reopening of a closed unit at WSP set to house 250 new minimum security inmates as of July 1. The older cells, built in 1952, were closed in late 2008 due to budget cuts. Renovations were performed in order to bring the building up to code, but the renovations included roof work and an upgrade to the fire suppression system, and not major renovations to the entire building, says Shari Hall, WSP public information officer.
"When you open an older part of the Walla Walla prison, that could be a concern where you're going backwards in terms of safety and security," Morales says.
While most weapons come from available building materials or other objects already in the prisons, some weapons are smuggled in, either by visitors or the prison staff. Trying to cut down on smuggling, metal detectors have been employed and officer training for pat downs has gotten more effective. However, with budget cuts, new metal detectors and better staff training programs are often one of the first things to go.
Morales says most prison violence involving weapons is gang related in higher security prisons, such as the WSP. The way to stop it, Morales says, is mainly through reform programs that help get members out of gangs. However, as with training, these reform programs are often the first to go in an economic downturn.
"It's getting cut to the bone, and it's an issue," says Morales of such programs. "Inmates are put at risk when there are budget cuts."