Shanks, Shivs, and Sliming: Jail Weapons

killer with knife

Life behind the bars and miles of looping razor wire of our country’s prisons and jails is not an easy existence. Not only do the inmates have to deal with the emotional stresses associated with being away from their families and homes, they have to adjust to living inside a six-by-nine concrete box. Sometimes, they even share that claustrophobic enclosure with one or two other prisoners.

Tensions can run high as the men and women in these institutions struggle to survive.  Sometimes,   they find themselves fighting for their very lives. To assist them in their efforts to stay alive inmates make weapons out of whatever materials they can find.

Prisoners are quite creative it comes to making their weapons. They’ve used material such as, toothbrushes, metal of any kind, rocks, glass, wire, newspaper, plastic, nails and screws, ping-pong balls filled with lighter fluid, bars of soap, padlocks, and even human feces.

A weapon made from a nail and electrical tape.


A large spike wrapped with tape and string.

Three nails and a piece of steel make for a nice punching/stabbing weapon.


Assorted shanks/shivs (homemade knives).


Homemade weapons hidden inside a hollowed-out book.

A shank made from a piece of plastic. Tape is wrapped around the handle.

Stabbing, cutting, puncturing, and striking weapons.

Inmates often fill toothpaste tubes with feces and urine. Then they squirt the foul mixture on passing guards, or other enemies. This is known as sliming.

13 replies
  1. melanie atkins
    melanie atkins says:

    I’ve heard of sliming, but never really let myself think about it. Ick! I can’t imagine doing that, even when I was backed into a wall. I guess desperate people do desperate things.

    Thanks for the info, and the pictures of the shivs. Like some of the others, I’ve heard of them but never seen what they looked like. Very interesting.

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Dave – Only you would ask that question.

    They open the sealed end of the toothpaste tube to insert their sliming material. Then they reseal it by folding the bottom of the tube. Now they’re locked, cocked, and ready to fire.

    Tootpaste tubes aren’t the only means of delivering slime, but it does afford fairly accurate, long range shots. I’ve also seen them toss the stuff from cups, buckets, shoes, and even their bare hands.

    There, and remember, you asked.

  3. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:


    I know prisoners have a lot of time on their hands and can be very inventive, but it just occurred to me … how do they get the feces in the toothpaste tube?

    Or do I want to know?

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Elena – You’re right. It’s a miserable job. Not only do officers have to deal with the prisoners, they have to deal with long hours, poor working conditions, and an administration that’s constantly trying to catch them doing something wrong. It’s a very thankless, overwheling job.

    Will – What can I say?

    Hey, it was nice meeting you at Kate’s party Tuesday night.

    Dave – All I can picture is the two cells in the Mayberry Sheriff’s Office with you turning the key on Otis’s cell. Goober says, “Hey!”

  5. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Good morning, Lee.

    When I was a detective sergeant in the Burglary Unit, I was designated the “City Jailer” for the two holding cells we had in the bureau. It seems state regulations dictated we have a City Jailer, and I received that dubious honor owing to the fact you could see both cells from my desk. I even had to go to a week long training course at the state academy.

    I held that title until the state reclassified their system and we no longer had to jump through so many hoops. Ah, bureaucracy.

    Fortunately, we never had anyone in those cells long enough for them to fashion weapons!

  6. Elena
    Elena says:

    Mythbusters had an interesting episode around making a functioning, one shot, cross bow out of newspaper and the elastic from undies. It worked.

    It seems to me that incarceration is not only hard on the prisoners, but has a negative effect on those who work there too. Many of the guys I met just coming out into probation were suffering from PTSD. And, the prison personnel I occasionally dealt with, at best, were overwhelmed and fairly shut-down.

  7. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Glad I could be of service, Joyce. The weapons are usually quite crude, but very effective and very sharp.

    The most interesting and creative prison weapon I’ve ever seen was a pistol made from sewing machine parts. I’ve also seen a single-shot shotgun made from a short piece of pipe. The real puzzle is how the inmates get the shotgun shells and bullets. Well, I know how the guy got the bullets – his girlfriend smuggled them in on visiting day. She’d hidden them in a very “private” place.

    And then there was the male prisoner who hid an entire hacksaw blade in another place where the sun doesn’t shine…

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