most people, “packing a toothbrush” evokes thoughts of
vacation. But for Paul Biermann the words trigger images of
prison – specifically, inmate violence.
It all began at a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health
injury prevention lecture two years ago where current research
projects at the National Institute of Justice were being discussed.
A common theme was inmate and correctional officer
safety in an environment where violence is common.
Much of the current information on violent incidents
was anecdotal, so Biermann proposed a joint project with the
Hopkins School of Public Health to survey detention centers,
jails and prisons across the country. “We had to define the
problem before we could come up with a plan to make it
better,” he says.
With development funds from the National Institute
of Justice, a committee of University, APL and correctional facility
representatives created a survey that was completed by correc-
tions officials from 72 facilities including jails, medium- and
maximum-security prisons, and federal penitentiaries.
“This was the most focused study of prison assaults
ever done,” says Emily Ward, a mechanical engineer who joined
Biermann at the project’s start. “Previous reports tabulated
injuries or deaths but didn’t identify what the
weapons were made from, but we asked more detailed questions to get to
They found that about 90 percent of all prison violence
was inmate-to-inmate and 10 percent targeted prison officers. The most
common weapons were a lock concealed in a sock, sharp objects fashioned
from toothbrushes and disposable razors, and metal strips used to secure
chain link fence to its poles.
Prisoners shaped toothbrush handles into weapons by
filing them down on concrete floors or inserted disposable razor blades
into them. “That
was a problem
our Advanced Composites Development
Laboratory could do something about,” says Biermann, who has been
instrumental in developing the Composites
Lab over the past two decades.
Biermann and Ward toured several facilities
to get a better feel for the environment
before starting to develop new products. “We had to take into account
the reality that there are very bright people sitting behind bars who
can be very creative,” Biermann says.
The team soon expanded to include Gary Peck, who had
30 years experience making polymer molds. His expertise in developing
polyurethane (more commonly
referred to as urethane) systems led them to use a triple-layer design:
an epoxy core encased in a hard urethane layer, which was covered with
a softer urethane shell. Such a complex design is rare for the Composites
Lab but, Peck says, “It achieved the goal we had of an instrument
that couldn’t be sharpened or re-formed by heating.”
The team brainstormed possible designs, rejecting a
pressurized handle that deflated when compromised and a hollow handle
filled with tiny plastic balls, before settling on urethane rubber – the material found in roller blade wheels. It’s a material
the Composites Lab has worked with extensively for products such as submarine
shock mitigation research and biomedical applications such as human torso
The toothbrush and disposable razor prototypes are
now finished and will soon be shown to prison officials for “the sniff test.” If
reviews are good the Lab will look for a commercial manufacturer or possibly
a state-use (prison-based) industry to mass produce them.
Meanwhile, the development team hasn’t left prison life behind.
thinking about designing a plastic lock and a safer way to secure chain
link fence to its poles.
Copyright (c) 2005 JHU/APL