Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Prisoner Inventions: Design under duress

The remarkable inventions of incarcerated offenders illustrate that human creativity will find expression even in the most deprived of conditions

‘Deprivation is a way of life in prison.’

Despite perennial tabloid ‘exposés’ on the apparently cushy life of convicts, this account of incarceration commands authority. They are the words of ‘Angelo’, an artist, and at one time, inmate, written while serving his third decade in a correctional facility in Southern California. Though his sentence was mostly spent in a space only six feet by nine, Angelo’s prison life seems surprisingly relatable. It featured alarm clocks, kettles and lighters, and many of the other gadgets we all take for granted in our daily rituals. The difference for him was that all these objects were considered illicit contraband. Forbidden from being brought into the facility they were instead fabricated by Angelo and his fellow inmates from whatever materials they could lay their hands on.

While the improvised solutions Angelo and his ‘cellies’ turned to will come as no surprise to those following Orange is the New Black, the scale and variety of their invention is remarkable. From sex dolls, to cottage cheese, to tattoo guns, their innumerable creations have since been compiled in Prisoner Inventions, a remarkable record published in collaboration with artist collective Temporary Services, and illustrated ‘from the inside’ with schematic drawings by Angelo.

A ‘stinger’ – an immersion heater to boil water

A ‘stinger’ – an immersion heater to boil water

More than once in the course of the project, Angelo’s cell was searched and hundreds of these sketches illegally confiscated. Which such seizures representing the loss of weeks of work, and against the constant threat of punishment he and his co-designers faced for creating their improvised objects, it is impossible not to wonder what made them persevere. Perhaps the answer lies buried in the most fundamental layers of the human psyche – in 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, a paper proposing a new model for the understanding of our universal needs. Structured as a pyramid of ascending complexity, Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ asserted physiological requirements – shelter, food and water, sleep, and sex – as those most essential to life. It is thus possible to view a number of Angelo’s inventions, even the aforementioned ‘dolls’, as legitimate efforts to satisfy these fundamental requirements.

Many of the designs relate, for example, to the preparation of food – a commodity often in limited or dubious supply in prisons. From a ‘stinger’ (aka an immersion coil) powered by inserting a metal-tipped toothbrush into a wall socket, to a steamer constructed from two bowls hinged together with rosary beads, these creations represent an effort on the part of inmates to reassert control over this key part of their lives. While it is perhaps more challenging to cast the construction of a cheese toastie maker from a metal locker as an essential requirement for self-preservation, I still hand it to them for designing one. 

A cheese toastie maker, fashioned from a metal locker

A cheese toastie maker, fashioned from a metal locker

The human needs represented by the next tier of Maslow’s pyramid, as relating to personal safety and freedom from fear, can also be met with the aid of Angelo’s diagrams. His design for a modesty curtain, fashioned from a bed sheet, wooden dominos and paperclips (seemingly the mainstay of DIY’ers on both sides of the bars), is arguably as much about protecting a sense of psychological privacy and dignity as maintaining good relations with your cellmate. While Prisoner Inventions is filled with many such practical solutions to the mundanities of incarceration, its most revealing inclusions relate to those more ephemeral needs that Maslow placed in the higher echelons of his model. How, for example, does a prisoner answer his/her needs for friendship, self-respect and love?

Angelo’s answer was, at least in part, with a pet spider. Bizarre as it appears, the design for a vivarium-cum-memorial reads on deeper inspection as a device to not only nurture a pet, but also to mediate its creators’ relationships with themselves and each other. The ideal of memorialisation embodied in the tombstones of its mini cemetery seems even to connect with the existing iconographical symbolisms of prison tattoos. The level of collaboration required to bring together the requisite materials for any of these designs suggests that construction of even the most practical device inevitably also played a social role within the imprisoned community.

A spider vivarium

A spider vivarium

This sense of the prison’s internal economy, in which ingenuity and skill stood as equal currencies with drugs and cigarettes, emerges in the warm acknowledgements Angelo makes to his collaborators in the book’s introduction: ‘to Little John, a man who delighted in mass-producing stingers for anyone who wanted or needed one’ and ‘Randy, who possessed the spirit of Thomas Edison, utilizing existing knowledge but also blazing trails that few other inmates could follow’.

Given these jolly commendations, and the fact that Maslow included ‘creativity’ and ‘problem solving’ as the two core tenets in his psychological model’s top tier, proves that the ‘self-actualisation’ he promoted is achievable even in conditions of extreme scarcity. Angelo’s story thus not only reminds us of the fundamental humanity of the incarcerated, regardless of their pasts, but also serves as a lesson to all makers and designers. For those in pursuit of happiness and achievement in the creative life, it should never be forgotten that it is the condition of scarcity, not surplus, that truly breeds invention.

A steamer made from bowls

A steamer made from bowls

A modesty curtain

A modesty curtain

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.