Got an electrical outlet?
December 26, 2007 3:57 PM   Subscribe

I have heard that prisoners will use a trick involving sticking a bit of metal in electrical outlets to get a spark in a rather Macgyver-esque process of lighting a cigarette. Is this more urban legend than reality.

It shouldn't surprise you that part of the reason I'm asking is that I entered a bet on this subject, telling the other party that this seemed rather like an urban legend.

I wouldn't guess most jail cells have electrical outlets; in the commons areas as well. I would also guess that with so much smoking that goes on in jail, there would be plenty of matches going around.

The idea that a process involving lighting some lent or cotton off of sparks made by sticking pieces of metal in electrical outlets... well, I'll just say again that it reminds me of grand daddy long legs supposedly being the most poisonous spiders except that their mouths are too small.

I've googled all around but not found anybody addressing this. Thanks in advance for any thoughts and if we cross paths, I'll buy you a cup of coffee with the $10 bucks you folks help me win.
posted by gbinal to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Here's an unnecessarily long video that shows you how a prison match works. It could be started with the spark generated by a socket. It would be a really stupid thing to do though and you should not try it.
posted by 517 at 4:02 PM on December 26, 2007

From a blog named Prison Proxy:

"Occasionally, lighters float around. But more often, for the fire to light a cigarette, inmates use pencil leads. They stick one in each side of an electrical outlet and twist up a third piece of lead in some toilet paper. Then they make a wick by twisting up very tightly some toilet paper with a bit of cotton protruding from the end. They touch the one lead to connect the two in the outlet, producing a spark, with the cotton sufficiently close to ignite the wick."
posted by JPowers at 4:04 PM on December 26, 2007

When I was in elementary school, kids would stick a paper clip through an eraser of a pencil and stick it in the outlet to create a spark. It was done for amusement and I think it probably tripped the circuit breaker.
posted by Frank Grimes at 4:37 PM on December 26, 2007

As I understand it, one of the most common methods involves using salt water to moderate the effect so you are less likely pop the breaker.

In many Prison Systems (such as California) possession of matches or tobacco is treated just as seriously as possession of drugs or a weapon. you can get months or years added to your sentence over on cigarette.
posted by Megafly at 6:35 PM on December 26, 2007

When I worked in a drug treatment center this was standard operating procedure. I caught one of the teenagers smoking one night and could not find his matches. I pulled him into our office and demanded to know where they were otherwise I'd pull his weekend pass. He motioned me over to a wall outlet. He then proceeded to pull out the foil from a stick of gum and fashion two inch-long "prongs" and placed each one into each slot in the socket. Then he took the toe of his shoe and nudged the exposed foil just enough to touch sending a nice little spark flying. I wass pissed but impressed. Sad, I know.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 6:51 PM on December 26, 2007

Many prisons have a microwave in the common areas where inmates can cook food they buy from the commissary (ramen noodles, etc).

A common trick is to take two blades from a safety razor, wrap them up with toilet paper so the toilet paper is slightly separating the two blades. Once put into the microwave, they arc and catch the toilet paper on fire, making a good way to light your cigarette or joint. The tighter the toilet paper is rolled up the slower it'll burn.
posted by lockle at 7:28 PM on December 26, 2007

I can not speak for all prisons, but here in Florida light sockets are actually located in a sealed & pad locked access hatch between every few cells in state prisons. So I don't think your light socket rumor is really possible here. However having spent many a night in confinement myself I can tell you there are many ways to sling, rope, ramp, and kite smuggled lighters from one closed door cell to another. I have seen guys good enough to take strings out of their mattresses or sheets and anchor one end with a 1/2 piece of soap or empty tube of toothpaste and be able to very accurately retrieve lighters, paper, books, etc. from other inmates.... on other floors. The funniest part was watching rival "ropes" flying out of other cells trying to intercept goods! Ah the good old days...

I was a guard not an inmate though so I'm sure there was other tricks to get a light but your socket idea is not one I have ever heard of.
posted by Mardigan at 12:23 PM on December 27, 2007

Oh and matches are bad m'kay... think about a few hundred match heads in a tight container + simple fuse. Matches are one of the most illegal things in prison besides knives.
posted by Mardigan at 12:25 PM on December 27, 2007

Response by poster: Hmmm... Thanks a lot, everyone. I'm going to call this a tie with the guy.

But really, though I hate being redundant, maybe I'm more sentimental over the holidays, but thank you for being the type who contribute to society in an open forum like this. I'm grateful for the likes of you.
posted by gbinal at 1:37 PM on December 27, 2007

Steel wool + wall socket = enough fire to light a cigarette, but no flames.
posted by falameufilho at 2:56 PM on December 27, 2007

A spark is not necessary, for lighting a cigarette this way. All you have to do is get the end hot. You know, like the cig lighter in your car.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 3:34 PM on December 27, 2007

By the way, I'd always heard them called stingers. My best friend went to prison for a year and a half (long story - bad situation, etc.) and told me of just such activities in the common areas. A lot of inmates have radios/tvs so outlets were everywhere.
posted by cdmwebs at 6:58 PM on December 27, 2007

sticking a bit of metal in electrical outlets
Pencils work the best.

A heating device for boiling water (looks like a cheap soldering iron), sold through commissary.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:34 PM on December 27, 2007

« Older Simple application usage timer?   |   I'm looking for a list of cult books. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.