When you’re sent to prison, you’re stripped of basic comforts the rest of us take for granted—things like having many food options or a way to light contraband cigarettes. Necessity is the mother of invention, so those who have been in prison have had to come up with some creative life hacks for when resources are limited. Here are a few of them.
They all have a common theme of making things last longer and making do with what you have—principles we champion here at Lifehacker. Thankfully, we can learn them without having to spend time behind bars.
Test a Battery by Bouncing It
After posting this video, several commenters noted that this trick is something most ex-cons know. Everything costs money in jail or needs to be traded with others, so it pays to know if a battery really works when you can’t just go to the nearest store to buy fresh batteries. Hence, the prison drop test.
Turn a Battery into a Lighter
Once you know a battery is good, you can create fire for lighting a homemade candle (made with empty yogurt or applesauce containers, baby oil, and thread), cigarettes, or anything else. Web Urbanist explains:
There are many ways to get access to fire (or at least a spark) in prison, but this one is simple while boasting a pretty intelligent design. A wire is taped to the negative side of the battery; when you want a light, just touch the other side of the wire to the positive side of the battery and the exposed bit of wire in the middle heats up.
You could also start a fire with steel wool and a 9-volt battery or aluminum foil/gum wrapper and AA battery, a la “Orange Is the New Black.” (The Web Urbanist post linked above, by the way, offers many clever prisoner inventions, including some pretty horrifying weapons.)
Heat Up Food When You Don’t Have a Stove
According to former inmate Carl Cattermole, you can make prison toast by wrapping a slice of bread in paper and sticking it on the hot pipes for five minutes. Gizmodo’s Prison Hacks also revealed that you can turn toilet paper into an oven of sorts:
The TP is rolled into a cylinder, folded in at the ends, and lit so it burns from the inside out. That slows it down and intensifies the heat. Inmates hold their undercooked meal above the flame, and voila, you can get it as hot and crispy as you like
Make Anything Taste Better
Speaking of food, clever prison recipes and cooking tricks could probably make up a whole post of its own. When I asked people on Twitter their life hacks learned from jail, many replied with food ones.
Brian U offered two tips:
Replace water with apple juice when cooking rice, adds flavor and quick, affordable and easy.
Make a cake in microwave using crumbled up Oreo cookies and milk using mug or small container.
Will F said:
You can make Ramen in a plastic bag by filling it with hot water and wrapping it in a towel for a few minutes.
And Chris A shared:
One of my ex roommates did a little time. When we lived together in a house he always bought two specific things at the grocery store. Ramen Noodle Packs and Mini bags of Cheetos. He used these to make what he called prison burritos. Essentially eat half the bag of Cheetos, crush the rest of them in the bag, add half the Ramen noodle pack and a little hot water to the bag of cheetos, shake it up, fold it over closed. Let it sit for 5-7 minutes. when you rip open the bag you have a little Cheeto-cheesy noodle burrito shaped thing. He said he did this because you don’t get bowls in jail. Strangely enough its kinda delicious if Ramen is a part of your life and you need a change of flavors.
All of these could come in handy for dorm dwellers and those very low in food funds.
This letter from an inmate on Between the Bars details prison culinary tricks and how inmates “hustle” to earn valuable stuff from the people who work in the kitchen: vanilla extract, table salt, milk, and other items…to make ice cream in a trash can.
For further creative prison recipes, The Cell Block Café lists several, including Rice Caribbean, Frito Chili Pie, and Kisses & Peanut Butter Sundae.
Exercise with Nothing But Your Body
Dumb Little Man explains why some prisoners who go away for a couple of years come out with “prison body”: they only have so much time to use the gym, they prioritize their time, they don’t have any distractions, and each day is consistent. You can get physically fit using nothing but bodyweight exercises too. The book Convict Conditioning, written by a ex-convict, comes highly recommended for bodyweight exercises that make you stronger and more powerful—not just bulked up.
This Table of Exercises Shows You How to Get Fit Without Any Equipment
You can get a complete workout with just your body. This “Periodic Table of Bodyweight…
Turn Everyday Objects into Beauty Items
“Orange Is the New Black,” based on Piper Kerman’s experiences in prison, showcases quite a few tricks for female inmates, such as using maxi pads to clean your cell, as makeshift slippers, as a dildo, or as a surgical mask. (This seems a bit wasteful considering how precious a commodity pads and tampons are in prison, but toilet paper is also scarce.) Some of the more interesting tricks are beauty-related (and saved, perhaps, for those prison visits): use Kool-Aid as a temporary hair dye or, mixed with Vaseline, as lipstick; coffee as eyeshadow or a face mask; tampons as hair curlers; colored pencils as eyeliner (ouch).
You could also add some water to a magazine cologne strip, Brian U says, to make it last longer.
Camouflage Holes and Other Things with Toothpaste
You might have already heard on Lifehacker that you can fix drywall damage with toothpaste or even hang posters with the sticky stuff. An unusual source, a forum for prison officers, notes that inmates also make creative use of toothpaste:
We had an inmate in the dorms do that. Took toothpaste and coffee grounds and made a perfect match of the color of the door and hid his tattoo gun inside the door.
…I have actually seen window bars that had been sawed out with a hacksaw and put back in place by toothpaste and colored gray with watercolors. it was one heck of a night and we could have lost several inmates that night .this was many years ago and in an old county jail.
Tips for Preparing for Prison
Finally, it goes without saying that you want to stay out of prison (read this Reddit thread for further reinforcement). But just in case you’re ever taken into custody, Michael V warns that you should not sign the property release form until you’ve counted all the cash in your wallet and are sure they’ve given all of your possessions back.
UR notes that if it’s a procedural arrest, make sure you leave your jewelry/wedding rings behind, have $500-1000 cash to quickly bail out, and memorize important numbers in your contact list.
And Cannabis Culture offers eight more tips you will hopefully never need to use.
Photos by View Apart (Shutterstock), tele52 (Shutterstock), Temporary Services, Iwan Gabovitch, edkohler, Jonas B.