Jailers worry about dental floss as a weapon

Oct 25, 2012, 9:30 PM

Associated Press

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) – Dental floss may prevent toothaches, but it’s given jailers plenty of headaches.

When a group of New York prisoners sued last month to demand access to dental floss, officials said they had to consider “security issues.” As it turns out, jail _ and jailbreak _ history is tightly tangled with the stringy decay fighter.

In Texas, officials believe a prisoner used floss to cut his way out of his cell, then jumped a fellow inmate and knifed him to death.

In Maryland, Illinois, West Virginia and Wisconsin, inmates collected enough floss to braid it into ropes and escape, or try to, over prison walls.

A group of escaped prisoners on the run in Texas used floss to sew up their gunshot wounds.

And a man in an Illinois jail used floss to stitch together the dummy he left in his bed when he took off.

Experts say floss, or the plastic holder it sometimes comes in, has been used to strangle enemies, to escape, to saw through bars, to pick handcuffs, to make a hand grip on a shank and to hoist contraband from one level of cells to another.

“These inmates can make a weapon out of a chewing gum wrapper,” said Steven Kayser, whose company sells a floss product advertised as prison-safe. “Floss is right up there on the danger list.”

Officials at the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla were somewhat leery when 11 inmates, acting without a lawyer, filed a $500 million lawsuit demanding access to dental floss.

Lead plaintiff Santiago Gomez said the jail was “violating inmates’ federally protected civil rights by not allowing inmates access to dental floss, while acknowledging that it will result in cavities if you fail to floss your teeth.”

He said the inmates had been brushing three times a day, “tongue and gums included,” but were still getting cavities, bleeding gums, enduring constant tooth drilling and mental anguish.

Deputy Commissioner Justin Pruyne said the jail is not required to supply floss to inmates and said floss posed security concerns. But the jail has since brought in a supply of Kayser’s “Floss Loops” _ circles of rubbery floss with no hard plastic that are designed to break easily before they can be used as a weapon.

It’s not clear if that has satisfied the prisoners. The lawsuit has not been dropped.

An episode of the science TV show “Mythbusters” a few years ago set up an experiment to challenge the floss-as-security-risk theory. The show used a floss-equipped robot to test whether floss _ combined with toothpaste to make it more abrasive _ could really saw through a bar on a jail cell.

The feat was declared “plausible,” given 300 days at eight hours a day _ the kind of time that an inmate might have.

Regulations of prison floss vary around the country.

In northeastern Texas, officials believe Antonio Lara used dental floss and toothpaste to saw his way out of a cell at a county jail and kill a gang rival in 2000.

“We do not carry traditional dental floss because of security concerns,” said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Coffield Unit near Palestine, Texas. “Floss can be used to make ropes, weapons, cut through bars, even just reinforce the grip on a shank.”

Instead, inmates are allowed plastic holders with a small piece of floss stretched across, he said.

In California, the state approves Floss Loops. Regular floss can be used as a garrote, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“But for that matter, you can pull thread from your socks or bed linens to choke someone. It’s not just razor blades and toothbrush shanks in prison. We’ve seen underwear used as a weapon.”

New York’s state prison system permits dental floss, but only the unwaxed variety. The waxed is “much stronger,” said spokesman Peter Cutler. He said prison security officials have banned it after having “experience” with the waxed variety. He would not elaborate.

The Westchester jail does ban toothpicks and water picks; inmates are allowed to have a 3-inch-long toothbrush, Pruyne said. Kayser said he also makes a “rubber-type” flexible toothbrush that’s 4 1/4 inches long, but said anything longer could be fashioned into a weapon.

It was waxed floss that was used in Wisconsin in 1997 by inmates Timothy Dummer and Guy Dunwald. They used ropes of braided floss to get over a wall at the Green Bay Correctional Institution. They were quickly recaptured and had five years added to their sentences.

A television story about the episode said the prisoners had collected 18,975 feet _ more than 3 1/2 miles _ of dental floss.

In 1994, Robert Shepard used a floss rope braided as a telephone cord to scale an 18-foot wall at the South Central Regional Jail in West Virginia. He was on the lam for about five weeks. He was already being disciplined for scraping away the mortar between bricks in his cell.

In 1991, three inmates bought hundreds of yards of dental floss from the store at the Hays County Jail in Illinois and turned it into a ladder of sorts.

“It was ingenious,” said U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth when the men pleaded guilty to attempted escape. “They made the rope out of dental floss and used cardboard salt-and-pepper containers for stirrups on the ladder. … That dental floss is strong.”

___

Associated Press Writer Michael Graczyk in Houston and Associated Press researcher Susan James in New York contributed to this report

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

FILE - More than 100 opponents of the Republican redistricting plans vow to fight the maps at a ral...
Associated Press

Abortion ruling puts spotlight on gerrymandered legislatures

In overturning a half-century of nationwide legal protection for abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Roe v. Wade had been wrongly decided and that it was time to “return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives” in the states. Whether those elected officials are truly representative of the people is a matter […]
16 hours ago
People salute the casket of Hershel "Woody" Williams set up in the first floor rotunda of the West ...
Associated Press

WWII Medal of Honor recipient to lie in state at US Capitol

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, the last remaining Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin announced at a memorial on Sunday where Williams was remembered for his courage, humility and selflessness. “He never quit giving back,” said Manchin. That […]
16 hours ago
FILE - California Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses the recent mass shooting in Texas during a news confe...
Associated Press

‘Join us in California’: Newsom targets GOP in Florida ad

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom is running for reelection in California, but his latest television ad is airing in Florida. The 30-second spot scheduled to air on Fox News starting Monday takes shots at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his policies, while drawing a contrast with California. “Freedom, it’s under attack in your […]
16 hours ago
Associated Press

Video shows Akron police kill Black man in hail of gunfire

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — A Black man was unarmed when Akron police chased him on foot and killed him in a hail of gunfire, but officers believed he had shot at them earlier from a vehicle and feared he was preparing to fire again, authorities said. Akron police released video Sunday of the pursuit and […]
16 hours ago
Associated Press

Shark attacks Long Island lifeguard during training exercise

FIRE ISLAND, N.Y. (AP) — Suffolk County officials closed a Long Island beach to swimming Sunday after what they described as an unprecedented shark attack that injured a lifeguard. The lifeguard had been playing the role of a victim during a training exercise when the shark bit him in the chest and hand, Suffolk County […]
16 hours ago
Associated Press

Missouri lawmaker resigns from House after fraud conviction

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri legislator has resigned her seat after being convicted of falsely claiming she was giving patients stem cell treatments for COVID-19. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that Republican state Rep. Tricia Derges of Nixa sent her resignation letter to House Speaker Rob Vescovo on Friday. She was convicted in […]
16 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
...
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
Jailers worry about dental floss as a weapon