10 deadly toothbrushes: Lethal convict ingenuity

Penitentiary inmates, particularly those serving lengthy sentences, often find inventive inspiration in those passing hours and days. One convict at medium-security Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba, near Winnipeg, turned his time and creativity to the fabrication of a remarkable weapon. It might rank among the most ingenious ever found inside a Canadian prison, not solely for its remarkable design, but also because of its lethal potential.

Inmate-built crossbow
This hand-held crossbow was built secretly by an inmate at a Manitoba prison (photo © Rob Tripp)

The device, an intricately assembled crossbow, was found in 1998 in the dissociation area of Stony Mountain. Dissociation is a segregation unit where convicts are held for punishment. It was built from 10 toothbrushes, a cigarette lighter, a section of ballpoint pen casing, a piece of wire coat hangar, a section of a pair of aluminum cafeteria tongs, assorted electrical components, pieces of yellow rubber gloves, some Kleenex, a piece of string, and a few screws. The darts were made from tightly rolled paper, Q-tips, aluminum foil found in cigarette packs, pieces of wire and masking tape.

This imposing little weapon could fire a dart accurately 40 feet, tests by prison staff showed. The crossbow is on display at the penitentiary museum in Kingston, Ontario, along with many other ingenious weapons manufactured by prisoners but found and confiscated by staff. It’s not clear if the crossbow was ever put to use to wound or kill anyone. As fast as prison workers ferret out weaponry at Canada’s 57 institutions, convicts fashion more.

Sources tell me the convicts involved in a mini-riot at medium-security Joyceville Institution in Kingston on April 24 had a “bucket full of shivs” stashed in the prison’s recreation area, in preparation for the black-on-white melee that sent eight convicts to hospital.

If you want to see a selection of shivs confiscated from prisons, be sure to visit the pen museum. Located across the street from the imposing, maximum-security Kingston Penitentiary, the museum is housed in the former warden’s residence. Curator David St. Onge is a walking encyclopedia of corrections history who can answer just about any question.


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