Archive for August, 2011

When Archimedes quantified the physics behind the six simple machines that perform work and make moving things easier for humans, he probably was not hunting for scrap metal on a daily basis because he could not find a job. Or else he wasn’t a redneck.

I grew up around tools because my father enjoyed woodworking. In fact, at age 89, he still works in his wood shop. Touching his tools was a death sentence, and he always knew their exact positions and places at any given time, such that, if you moved one, you ended up feeling like Paul Shelton in Misery when Annie Wilkes says, “Paul. My little ceramic penguin in the study always faces due south. Now it faces north. You’ve been out.” So I always had great respect for tools, although I did not use them much.

Taking apart a sattelite dish

This huge old satellite dish is mostly aluminum, except for the extremely rusted nuts and bolts. Required WD-40, vice grips, socket wrenches, a hammer and a ladder.


A good deal of infrastructure goes to the landfill each day. We retrieved these lamps from a dumpster, for the nice aluminum. I also think the bulbs are pretty, so I collect them.

The six simple machines or tools are pretty much all present on a bicycle, and they are:

The lever

Force is applied to one end of a lever, and the force is magnified at the business end. Examples are the baseball bat, the crowbar, and the seesaw. The crowbar can be handy for scrapping activities such as removing tires or prying something apart when you have given up on other tools. We have one, but it is not very long and so there is not enough force magnification going on. We do not have a baseball bat, and this is a good thing because we have had a couple of annoying encounters with people who saw fit to invade our dumpster when we were in it and a bat could have complicated things.

Wheel and axle

We have these on our truck. Another example is a rolling pin, but I have never had a sudden urge to bake a pie while I was in a dumpster, so I have not collected them, although they are available free of charge in any number of dumpsters if you need one. Wheels work really well. We found this out when we were driving down the road and our brake cable ruptured. After pumping the brakes for several minutes (he was driving) I said something like, “What do you think that sucking noise is?” He said he did not know, and I said, “Since there is a red light and all, maybe you could actually see if we even have an emergency brake,” which he did, and that is good because we used it all the way home and then all the way to the shop the next morning, although we did discuss (I kid you not) the fact that since we were broke and since the emergency brake was working so well, maybe we could just use that for a while. At the brake shop the next morning the repair guy told us that people actually do that. Oh. The sucking noise was the noise of the last few drops of brake fluid being violently and repeatedly sucked out of that brake fluid container, as we rolled down the road, thinking we were going to die.

Inclined Plane

An inclined plane is a ramp. We do not have one but I wish we did. The work is spread over distance with a ramp. I love those really sturdy aluminum ramps sort of like the things that are attached to a U-Haul rental. I always thought that there were a lot of ramps around during the building of the Pyramids.


Double inclined plane. Examples are axes, knives, chisels, screwdrivers, and if I am not mistaken, animal horns are also a type of wedge. Wedges are essential. You cannot function without screwdrivers and, probably the most important piece of scrapping equipment is a lineman’s wire cutter. I used to lose these things all the time. They disappeared faster than money in Iraq until one day, when a retired electrician gave me something called a Klein tool. Home Depot does not sell these things. It is a high-end wire cutter. Once you get a good wire cutter it is like finding a good ratcheting screwdriver or a great set of vice grips for the first time. You will think, “How did I ever make it without these things? How was it even possible to function without them?”


A screw is an inclined plane wrapped around a shaft, and torquing force is used, that is, applying force perpendicular to the groove to translate rotational into linear force. The object of the game in scrapping is to unscrew though, and so a ratcheting screwdriver with several heads and an extension is a must. Other tools that unscrew things are the hammer, the sledge hammer, the plug-in reciprocating saw and the blow torch. As you de-evolve through the list, your language may get quite colorful.


We do not yet have the wheel part of our pulley but we have some great ropes, so we are ready when the right wheel presents itself. As a substitute for the wheel, we have a donut-shaped magnet that we have put the rope through, and we lower the rope into the dumpster with it, to pull up small pieces of metal.

Other Tools

Archimedes may not have had zip ties but we do, and they came in really handy one day when the front grill fell off the truck. Duct tape holds on, what is that strip on the side of the truck? It’s not really a bumper but you know what I am talking about. I often wonder how Archimedes made it through his life without magnets, duct tape, flashlights, bug repellent, WD-40 and AA batteries.

And another thing: Don’t do what we do and go out scrapping without taking water. Honestly, this is the truth: I was so parched one time that I dove for the nearest ditch, drank the water and took my chances, so you know. Going out without water during a heat advisory is serious, and it affects you sort of like nitrogen narcosis in scuba diving: you become disoriented but you do not know it.

Six simple machines reference article

Finally, a summertime tune, with a bass, banjo, and even a jug- I am sure you remember this!

Part 1 of 3 documentary, about 10 minutes.

Pull one thread, and you begin unravelling the whole fabric of our society: unsavory preoccupation with crime and increasing demand for punishment, but ignorance of the root causes of crime and the goals of punishment; satisfaction with image over substance, sound bites over complexity; lip service to American ideals and simultaneous repudiation of the realities of democracy. The economic reality is that we are working harder and harder for less and less, and the psychological reality is that we are accepting this, because we can still see the grass when we look through the bars on our windows.

-Karen Miller

Two and one half million Americans, or one out of every one hundred adults, is incarcerated today. Most of these inmates are War on Drugs non-violent offenders. Why does this country hold 25% of the world’s prisoners? Mike Elk on Democracy Now! explains that ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council is, in large part, responsible.

The name of the game here is to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible, and use them for free corporate labor, and the game is being played out in ever-increasing prison and jail privatization coupled with inmate production of product that can be sold locally and globally. Profits are huge because slave labor is essentially free. The breaded chicken patty that your child eats at school may have been produced by an inmate that received as little as twenty cents a day.

At first blush, inmates working seems like a great idea. When I found work in jail for sixty-three cents a day I was ecstatic; the dollar a day in prison was better than my wildest dreams. I was shocked to learn, however, that no jail or prison employer was allowed to vouch for my skills or work habits upon release. I was not allowed to list a single name. Without being able to list a single reference on any job application upon release, I have found it impossible to get work.

The idea that working inmates will take their learned skills and walk into the sunset of contributing to society in a dream job on release is absurd. At the very least, we need some legislation that allows jail and prison supervisors or employers to be references on a released inmate’s job applications.

The ‘privatize-prisons-for-the-free-labor’ people are not interested in an inmate’s success upon release. They could care less. Instead, they are busy designing and cultivating a free workforce that repopulates itself. They are interested in repeat offenders and longer sentences, because repeat offenders with longer sentences, particularly those of the non-violent offender variety, are profitable.

Non-violent offenders are often locked up for longer than violent offenders. Why is that? Why are predators roaming the streets in increasing numbers, while rolling paper people are serving twenty, thirty years in jails and prisons? It is because the profiteers are not at all interested in reducing violent crime. They are interested in increasing their offshore bank accounts. Anecdotally, I am right. Examples I can personally cite include at least two people who killed someone while driving intoxicated, a gun-point bank robber, a knife-point cab driver robber, a married couple that admitted to killing their child, and a woman that participated in a murder, followed by having sex with, cutting the baby out of, and then burning and hiding the corpse, several others who ran over someone drunk and then drove around with blood on their bumper evading police: these people are all free today, while many nonviolent war on drugs inmates, myself included, remain incarcerated or on supervision.

Non-violent inmates make for versatile workers and so, from a profit standpoint, it makes sense to pack the new slave labor force with as many non-violent people as you can for as long as you can. Violent people cannot, for example, fulfill Scott Walker’s dream, which is to displace union workers on the outside, and replace them with non-union inmates that can mow lawns and perform landscaping for free. In Walker’s world, little annoyances like workplace inspections, acceptable conditions, reasonable hours and would be eliminated. And the best part? Inmates can make new jails and prisons for more inmates! No need to bother with unionized trade workers with families to support, right?

Historically, beginning in the Depression, inmate-produced products could not be used for profit. JFK’s rocking chair, for example, was made in Leavenworth during such a time.

All of this is changing.

I think inmate work that is ethically motivated and designed, so that inmates can become self-supporting through their own contributions upon release, is a great idea. Here in Kentucky, for example, inmates translate Braille and train service dogs. Inmates are well suited to train service dogs because such training is round-the-clock work. But when the process is exploitative and the true underlying motives are profit-driven, it is nothing more than a way to replace immigrant labor with a labor force on the inside, making things for the outside, and it has absolutely nothing to do with correction, rehabilitation or reducing crime. It is yet another borderline criminal enterprise cloaked in the guise of greater good. Are we really bringing slavery back? Sneaking in a little slavery that no one notices at first because the slaves are part of a secret society that is out of sight and out of mind?

In case you are interested, here is a partial list of companies that use prison labor.

BOEING, COMPAQ, Texas Instrument, Honeywell, Microsoft, DELL, Starbucks, Motorola, Nintendo, Forever 21, Planet Hollywood, Eddie Bauer, Victoria’s Secret, HP , Toys R Us, Konica, Chevron, IBM, and Trans World Airlines.

References and related articles:

Mike Elk’s excellent interview on Democracy Now!

The Karen Miller article with excellent analysis and history.

The list of companies is in this article

Ken’s woodworking “Convolution” on YouTube.

Several weeks ago, I came across Ken’s Convolution through my favorite redneck jury rig site There! I Fixed It,, under the section “TDW Geek.”

Ken’s Convolution is a beautiful example of kinetic art.

Convolution contains the following:

Geneva Wheel

Also called the Maltese Cross or the Geneva Drive, this converts continuous rotation into intermittent motion.

Rack and pinion

In the rack and pinion, gears convert rotational motion into linear motion.

Scotch Yoke

The Scotch Yoke converts linear motion into a slider motion.

Set of Gears

This set of gears may have a name, but we are experiencing computer sound difficulties at the moment, and I could not make out the name, so perhaps someone has a name for the gears.

The cranking goes in only one direction in Ken’s set of gears, and to achieve this, he has “a mechanism in the back.”

On the back of Convolution is the hand-cranked mechanism. He has a set of elliptical wheels that “don’t really do anything,” but they are still cool!

Also on the back is a pair of “clapping hands,” all operated by a “single little disc” that you can see.

The mechanism consists of a wooden chain, a hand-turned wheel, some pegs, and what looks like a drive shaft.

There is no metal in Convolution: no wire, no screws, no nails.

Turtle saying hello, by Crane-Station on flickr. Jail art, colored pencil.

Turtle saying hello by Crane-Station on flickr. Jail art, colored pencil.

Bluebirds bring a letter by Crane-Station on flickr. Jail art: colored pencil and magazine art.

Bluebirds delivering mail, by Crane-Station on flickr. Jail art, colored pencil, magazine ink and ink.

The above drawings are from Fulton County Detention Center.

McCracken County jail banned pencils and art supplies of any kind.

Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction account of incarceration in jails and in prison in Kentucky in 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.

Names have been changed.

Frog Gravy posts are also on in MyFDL in my diaries.

This post is from jail.

McCracken County Jail, Sometime in February, 2008, Cell 107

After Ruthie’s mother dies, I develop a fear that will stay with me for nearly the next two years. I fear that I will lose a parent, my son, my husband, or another loved one. None of my family members reside in this state, except for my husband.

During incarceration, I will see women lose parents, and also children, and I will watch in horror as a prison inmate is shackled and belly-chained and herded off to attend, for one-half hour, her son’s funeral- her teenage son, who drowned in an accident.

My mother’s sister is in fact very elderly and sick. I do not know how to help my mother with this from my vantage point, except to tell her what to expect. The dying experience is something that, for some reason or another, is avoided altogether in American culture. In my experience, many families were at a total loss at the bedside of a dying person, and many chose to leave the bedside altogether. I would always try to tell them, at the very least, that we believe hearing is intact until a person dies; hearing is the last thing to go, although of course, it is difficult to research this.

Here are my notes, and they may have come from a book or from memory:

1-3 months prior
-withdrawl from people and from world
-words less important than touch and physical presence, less verbal communication.
-decreased food intake.
-going inside of self.
-less communication.

1-2 weeks
-talking with the unseen.
-picking at clothes.

-decreased blood pressure.
-pulse rapid or slow.
-skin color changes, pale, bluish.
-sleeping but responding.
-complaints of body tired and heavy…

Days or hours:

-intensification of the 1-2 week signs.
-surge of energy.
-decrease in blood pressure.
-eyes glassy, tearing, half open.
-purplish knees, feet, hands.


-fish out of water breathing.
-cannot be awakened.

I try to talk openly with my mother, through letters, and educate her about the dying experience, and what to maybe expect in her sister’s case. My mother and I also exchange a few comments about our culture’s obsession with youth: unless you are young, and skinny, and getting laid, and making a lot of money, you are nothing.

It also occurs to me that I am psychologically and physically dying right here in this cement coffin, slowly, by inches and seconds. It is February, and I have not been out of the cell for any kind or rec since my arrival. Depression is crushing. I am babbling at times. I join others in showing my breasts to the men in the hallway.

Sometimes I wonder why the haters cannot just man up and kill us outright. But, I do not think they would enjoy that quite as much.

Author’s end note: My aunt died after my release, and, I was one of the lucky ones, in that I did not lose a family member during my incarceration. I was given, over and over, this advice: “You cannot live in here and out there at the same time.”

Barn During Storm by Crane-Station on flickr (jail art)

Barn during storm by Crane-Station on flickr. Jail art, magazine ink, ink and colored pencil.

Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky, in 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Names are changed, except for mine, which is clear in the documents below, and the social worker’s, also clear.

PeWee Valley Women’s Penitentiary, near Louisville, KY, 3-18-09, with a note about some animals on the grounds, penned on various dates and consolidated.

Before I enrolled in school, I worked recycle, breaking down cardboard boxes from the prison commissary, with a very shy woman named Roxi, who had the misfortune of being present in a home, when her boyfriend decapitated someone.

From our work area, we can see the large dining hall and the back entrance to the kitchen.

One day at work, I noticed a large, well-fed possum wander out of the kitchen area, where there is also a sewer, weave his way drunkenly led by pink snout, to the dumpster.

“You see Bob?” said Roxi.


“We done named him Bob. The possum.”

“Oh! He is so cute!”

“Yup. And we done fed him. A hot dog and a bologna sandwich.”

I look at Bob and think, well I’ll bet he never wants for anything.

If this weren’t real, it would be funny.

There were also a couple of prison calico cats that the inmates loved to feed and take care of, even though this was technically not allowed.

And then there was the baby bird that I was keeping warm and nursing back to health.

At the time I did not know any of this, but the prison staff would eventually kill Bob as well as the cats. They would ship Roxi, without notice to Otter Creek the private women’s prison, in Eastern Kentucky, a place where, according to some, “Lizards don’t even live in the yard.”

A guard will stomp my baby bird to death in front of me and then wipe the gore onto the pavement next to me, laughing.

If there is a place in hell…

Underground Education

I enroll in the Horticulture program, and immediately involve myself in the business of tutoring others, not in Horticulture, but in math, English, and Biology. I enjoy teaching because it is rewarding and sort of akin to clinical psychology.

Cricket never learned her times tables, but she wants to prepare for her GED, and so she asks for my help She is a mother of three small children, and when she got convicted, her hair fell out. She shows me some ‘before’ pictures. She does not have cancer, and doctors say it is not true alopecia either, because she still has eyebrows. Other inmates that live with her vouch that she is not pulling her own hair out.

Inmates are not allowed to teach.

My path crosses another inmate, Daffy, who also loves to teach, albeit under threat of the hole (or cell block, as it is called here) and we discuss strategy. My contraband teaching is difficult to prosecute, because, hey we were just studying together, right?

Daffy, however, who has a Master’s in Theology, has a following of inmates that are interested in learning more about Catholicism.

Daffy’s mother was Jewish, but she was raised Pentecostal, and later converted to Catholicism on her own. Her grandmother raised her on English literature.

We discuss our dilemma on the ball field.

Daffy says, “If someone just happens to find themselves out here on the ball field during recreation, say Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and they wish to join a few others…”

“For a discussion,” I add, “What’s to stop them? I mean they can discuss anything they want to, right?”

Contraband teaching. The truth is stranger than fiction.

One day, it all ends.

Cricket comes to me, in tears, and says, “I don’t need your help any more. They’ve done eliminated the GED classes.”

Others report the same thing. I make an appointment with my case worker and ‘out’ myself.

“What in the god damn,” I say. Some of the people I tutor are telling me that classes have been eliminated.”

“Thant’s right. The jails are complaining that they are not getting enough money because you guys are taking it all. Class D education is being eliminated; looks like inmates will be shipped back to the jails. I just wiped out an entire Life Without a Crutch class.”

My caseworker examines his computer screen.

“But Life Without a Crutch is a drug treatment class,” I say. “A good one, and most Class D’s are non-violent drug offenders.”

“I know.”

“There aren’t any educational programs at all in the jails, unless it is SAP (Substance Abuse Program) and you have to be a Class C (serving ten years or more for crimes such as trafficking and not simple possession) to even get into SAP!”

“I know.”

And so it goes. Inmates that were trying to do something, anything, to improve things with education and treatment were kicked out of school and out of treatment, in the name of money.

No educational materials allowed by Crane-Station on flickr

No educational materials allowed. This is a jail kite to the social worker in the McCracken County jail, requesting educational books. The request is denied.

No educational materials allowed by Crane-Station on flickr

A second request for educational materials is also denied by the social worker.

Author’s end note: I do not know the status of the programs today.

Frog Gravy posts are also at Firedoglakecom in the MyFDL diaries.