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How the Key to Safer Prisons Could Rest at the Molecular Level

Some prisons already use smaller razors and toothbrushes designed to be safer.
Some prisons already use smaller razors and toothbrushes designed to be safer. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

For all his success -- the Applied Physics Laboratory recently accorded him "master inventor" status by virtue of 11 patents -- none of his ideas has gone commercial. "I've just learned to be very reserved," he says.

Hopkins officials are discussing his new ideas with a corrections supply company. Should the firm sign a licensing agreement, it probably would work with Biermann to refine things. "Is this the greatest invention since sliced bread? No," Biermann says. "But it's a real start towards an engineering solution."

Biermann grew up in Upland, Ind., the son of the food services manager at a small Christian college. At 5, he followed the exploits of the first U.S. astronauts. He later experimented with a model submarine, running a wire tether to it in a friend's swimming pool. His senior class voted him Most Likely to Work for NASA.

He never got there, but after earning a materials engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., he eventually landed at Hopkins's Applied Physics Laboratory. The 400-acre complex, in southern Howard County, is teeming with scientists and engineers. A spacecraft they built is en route to Pluto.

At a luncheon in 2002, Biermann met Sarah Hart, then-director of the U.S. Department of Justice's research arm and the daughter of a polymer chemist. She encouraged him to look into prison weapons.

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.

Biermann focused on products that lent themselves to substitute materials: shaving razors, the second-most confiscated weapon behind "miscellaneous metal," and toothbrushes, which showed up as daggers and slasher handles.

Both products had a violent past. In 1990, California death-row inmate William Kirkpatrick rammed a sharpened toothbrush 22 times into his attorney's head and neck, leaving him with hearing damage. Years later, a federal inmate in Colorado, William Sablan, slit his cellmate's throat 60 times with a razor. Then he reportedly cut open the dead man's abdomen, removed some of his organs, spread them around their cell and flushed the razor down the toilet, according to testimony.

Suicide also is a risk. In 2000, an Oregon inmate filed his toothbrush with a pencil sharpener and shoved it up his nostril, eventually dying of a brain hemorrhage.

Back in their lab, Biermann and his colleagues strived to make normal-size replacement products. They looked at existing safety razors and couldn't find normal-size ones. They did find some regular-looking toothbrushes designed to avoid being turned into lethal daggers, but even those could be fashioned into slashers with razor blades.

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. "Creative and sensible," 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.

In prisons in the Northeast, Fox estimates, fewer than 20 percent of shaving razors and fewer than 10 percent of toothbrushes in use are the small, safety types. Fox says the devices don't work as well as bigger ones. And maintaining hygiene, he says, reduces medical costs and makes prisons safer.

In the Washington region, the Virginia Department of Corrections appears to use the safety products broadly. Officials distribute "anti-shank" razors at their highest-security facilities and use "security" toothbrushes. A department spokesman says serious attacks are rare, noting that in 2005, the Virginia system had 19 reports of inmate-on-inmate aggravated assaults and two reports of inmate-on-staff aggravated assaults. Those statistics don't give details on weapons.

In Maryland, inmates receive regular toothbrushes, says Maj. Priscilla Doggett, corrections spokeswoman. She said it was her understanding that inmates also get regular shaving razors.

Many institutions that distribute such products monitor them with checkout procedures. When inmates want a new toothbrush or shaving razor, they must turn in their unaltered, old ones. That, of course, eats up correctional officers' time and attention.

In the District, prison director Brown says the three-inch toothbrushes offer adequate teeth-cleaning, which is good enough because they're making things safer.

But for now his prison issues standard shaving razors to the regular prison population. he hasn't been able to distribute safety razors to all prisoners. Some inmates -- those on the mental health unit or those on "special management" status -- are observed while shaving or receive clipper cuts by barbers. Told of Biermann's work 30 miles north, which could lead to regular-size razors that perhaps all inmates could use, Brown agreed with his toothbrush critic Mendelson: "I'd love to take a look at it."

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