Inmate Inventions Featured In Book, Museum Exhibit

Print More,1294,60283,00.html

Locked in a California prison, Angelo needs a cup of coffee. Electric heaters are banned, so his cellmate combines the metal tabs from a notebook binder with a couple of melted toothbrushes and some rubber bands, says Soon, Angelo is sipping Folgers.

The jury-rigged heater is one of nearly 80 improvised items Angelo meticulously diagrams in a new book, “Prisoners’ Inventions.” Working with the Chicago-based art group Temporary Services, reports that Angelo (not his real name) shows how inmates fashion dice from sugar water and toilet paper, dry bologna jerky on jail-house light fixtures, turn hot sauce bottles into shower heads and make grilled cheese sandwiches on prison desks.

“This gives a glimpse into the everyday lives of the outrageous number of people we have in our prison system,” said Temporary Services’ Mark Fischer, who started trading letters with Angelo in 1991. In the movies, “prisoners only create things to escape, get high or kill each other.”

Angelo’s objects show a more banal, more human side of locked-down life: one where soda cans filled with rocks become crude alarm clocks and inmates cool their drinks in toilet bowls. Salt and pepper are only sporadically available in prison, Angelo explains. And when the seasonings are around, “everyone in the know” stuffs their pockets with the little paper packets that hold them. Instead of joining the rush, though, Angelo shows how he turns empty ChapStick containers and Bic lighters into cell-made salt- and peppershakers.

Some 30 objects have been built from Angelo’s descriptions by the Temporary Services art group and a team from the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Ma. The items are on display at the museum through next February, part of an exhibition that explores “how people transform their worlds,” said assistant curator Nato Thompson.


Comments are closed.


You have Free articles left this month.

Want access to all our reporting? Subscribe for unlimited access or login.