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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 22, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 42
APL and SPH Helping to Slam the Door on Prison Violence

APL’s Emily Ward, Paul Biermann and Gary Peck examine a 'safe' razor in the Advanced Composites Development Laboratory’s silicon mold work area.

By Helen Worth
Applied Physics Laboratory

For most people, "packing a toothbrush" evokes thoughts of vacation. But for Paul Biermann of APL, the words trigger images of prison—specifically, inmate violence.

It all began two years ago at a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health injury prevention lecture, where current research projects at the National Institute of Justice were being discussed. A common theme was inmate and correctional officer safety in an environment where violence is common.

Much of the current information on violent incidents was anecdotal, so Biermann proposed a joint project with the School of Public Health to survey detention centers, jails and prisons across the country. "We had to define the problem before we could come up with a plan to make it better," he says.

With development funds from the National Institute of Justice, a committee of Johns Hopkins and correctional facility representatives created a survey that was completed by corrections officials from 72 facilities including jails, medium- and maximum-security prisons and federal penitentiaries.

"This was the most focused study of prison assaults ever done," said Emily Ward, an APL mechanical engineer who joined Biermann at the project's start. "Previous reports tabulated injuries or deaths but didn't identify what the weapons were made from, but we asked more detailed questions to get to the source."

The researchers found that about 90 percent of all prison violence was inmate to inmate, and 10 percent targeted prison officers. The most common weapons were a lock concealed in a sock, sharp objects fashioned from toothbrushes and disposable razors, and metal strips used to secure chain link fence to its poles.

Prisoners shaped toothbrush handles into weapons by filing them down on concrete floors, or inserted disposable razor blades into them. "That was a problem our Advanced Composites Development Laboratory could do something about," said Biermann, who has been instrumental in developing the Composites Lab over the past two decades.

Biermann and Ward toured several facilities to get a better feel for the environment before starting to develop new products. "We had to take into account the reality that there are very bright people sitting behind bars who can be very creative," Biermann said.

The team soon expanded to include Gary Peck, also from APL, who had 30 years' experience making polymer molds. His expertise in developing polyurethane (more commonly referred to as urethane) systems led them to use a triple-layer design: an epoxy core encased in a hard urethane layer that was covered with a softer urethane shell. Such a complex design is rare for the Composites Lab, but, Peck said, "It achieved the goal we had of an instrument that couldn't be sharpened or re-formed by heating."

The team brainstormed possible designs, rejecting a pressurized handle that deflated when compromised and a hollow handle filled with tiny plastic balls before settling on urethane rubber, the material found in the wheels of in-line skates. It's a material the Composites Lab has worked with extensively for products such as submarine components, shock mitigation research and biomedical applications such as human torso protection.

The toothbrush and disposable razor prototypes are now finished and have been shown to prison officials for "the sniff test." Initial reviews were good, and the Lab has briefed the federal prison manufacturing company UNICOR. It also will look for a commercial manufacturer or possibly a stateuse (prison-based) industry to mass-produce them.

Meanwhile, the development team hasn't left prison life behind. They're already thinking about designing a plastic lock and a safer way to secure chain link fence to its poles.


This story first appeared in The APL News.


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