Lethal handiwork behind prison walls Search for shanks never turns up all

November 17, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

They begin with toothbrushes and soda cans and with parts of office desks and strips of metal from milk crates. The results are uniquely crafted and sometimes ingenious works -- but ones that are also tools of pain and death.

The artisans are prisoners. And they call their handiwork shanks -- homemade knives used for self-defense, power and control behind prison walls.

"In this little city," says LaMont W. Flanagan, who oversees the Baltimore City Detention Center, "you have the powerful and the powerless. The shank takes the place of a gun on the street."

Every year, Maryland prison officials collect hundreds of the homemade knives during prison "shakedowns" -- searches of inmates' cells for shanks and other contraband. But officials never find them all, and dozens of inmates and officers suffer.

Last month, Todd Hamilton Tynes, 36, was stabbed in the head with a shank in a fight with a fellow inmate at the city detention center. Tynes, who was in jail on theft and burglary charges, recovered from his injuries and was released on bail; the inmate accused of stabbing him was charged with assault.

In May, Christopher Hill, 34, a correctional officer at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup, was stabbed 17 times in the head, face, back and shoulders in a prison melee. Hill has been undergoing treatment and rehabilitation since the assault.

Leonard A. Sipes, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the department does not keep statistics on attacks with shanks, which are usually destroyed when found. But he said that assaults overall in Maryland's prisons have been on decline.

Sipes said that from fiscal 1994 to fiscal 1997, which ended June 30, assaults on correctional staff dropped 17.8 percent and assaults on inmates fell 16.3 percent.

Even so, correctional officers and inmates say they feel vulnerable to attacks because of the regular use of shanks in prisons.

"You know the fight or flight response?" says Sgt. Bernard W. Ralph Jr., a correctional officer at the annex and a union official who has been pushing for more safety equipment for officers. "In the street, you've got miles of road to run on. In the prison, the staff doesn't have the opportunity to exercise the flight option."

At an international correctional officers conference last month in Austin, Texas, the major safety concern was the threat of shanks, Ralph said.

"We had [correctional officers] from Puerto Rico, South Africa and Canada talking about shanks," he said. "Our concern as far as weapons are these knives. They can be brought out quickly and used against you quickly."

Flanagan, the state commissioner of pretrial detention and services, who maintains a small collection of shanks for training purposes for the state, has been studying why inmates make and use the homemade knives. He recently asked a group of about 50 inmates to write essays on the subject.

Most of the essays, which were made available to The Sun, reached virtually the same conclusions: Shanks are for protection, power and pride.

"People have to live up to a certain image or reputation in order to impress others," one inmate wrote in his essay. "They basically use violence to degrade someone else, to make themselves look important."

Said another inmate: "We as inmates use shanks to protect ourselves from other inmates or even officers. The thought of shanks comes from within the mind, meaning that a pencil could be a shank, if used as one."

Others say they use shanks to attack staff when they feel they don't get proper treatment. Sometimes a shank is used when one inmate tries to steal illegal drugs from another. And some inmates will use a shank when they want revenge for being wronged.

In an interview, Roger Griffin, 33, one of the inmates who wrote an essay on shanks, said he believes that at least a third of the 4,000 inmates at the city jail and Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center have shanks.

Griffin, who is in jail for violating his probation for drug use, said he once made a shank out of a soda can for protection. "You fold it down and sharpen it. Eventually that will be hard, if you get it rolled up real tight," he said.

Capt. Kenneth M. Bartee's job is to teach correctional officers to find such weapons. Bartee is a training manager at the jail and for the state's police and correctional academy.

A 22-year correctional officer, Bartee has seen hundreds of shanks in Maryland's prisons. He teaches officers how to identify materials that might be used to make shanks and to avoid bringing in anything, such as metal utensils in their lunch, that might be stolen by an inmate and fashioned into a weapon.

"We don't want one of these things in somebody's back or head," Bartee said.

Pointing at a glass case that he uses during training sessions and at a box of other knives recently confiscated in shakedowns, Bartee said they showed how the shanks are made from almost anything.

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