Long-standing challenge: how to keep prison inmates from turning their toothbrushes and shaving razors into weapons.
Unlikely man taking it on: Paul Biermann, an inventor at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, whose work to date has tended more toward fields such as biomechanics and outer space. Now, he proposes toothbrushes and shaving razors with altered molecular properties.
It is no small problem. Inmates extract blades from razors, then wedge them into the melted ends of toothbrushes to make slashers. They sharpen the ends of toothbrushes into small daggers by rubbing them against concrete.
Biermann did and soon found himself touring Maryland and Pennsylvania institutions. He and his Hopkins colleagues collected data from prisons nationwide, learning how convicts weaponized seemingly anything – a bucket handle, plastic wrap, a padlock encased in the end of a whirling sock.
Back in their lab, Biermann and his colleagues strived to make normal-size replacement products. The group tested new materials and designs, including one with a pressurized handle that deflated when tampered with.
Biermann settled on a urethane material, reinforcing the interiors with rods made of a paper-based product. As the urethane cured, its molecular chains linked to those closest to each other – rendering the resulting products resistant to reshaping.
Biermann used the same material for his shaver handles. He also used an electric discharge machine to cut seven serrations perpendicular to the blade’s edge but stopping just short of it – allowing smooth shaving with a significantly weakened blade. He bonded the blades in place, making it even more likely they would break into tiny pieces if removed.
A team of corrections people reviewed the work. â€œCreative and sensible,â€? said one, Alex Fox, director of security technologies at the Massachusetts Department of Correction and chairman of a 14-state group that reviews prison gizmos. Fox believes Biermann’s products can work if a manufacturer can produce them inexpensively enough.
Photo by MSDesigns.
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