Prison Coffee 1+2+3

A few years ago, someone emailed us at MAKE with the following message, and the 8 page scans below attached:

Hello Makezine Staff,
My brother is in jail awaiting trial and has become a huge fan of your magazine. He recently sent me a letter requesting that I send you some of his ideas for future articles in your magazine, please take a minute to check out the attachments I sent which are the pages of his letter.

The pages described several prisoner hacks, many based on using toilet paper as combustion fuel. Hey, neat, we thought, always nice to learn about MAKE readers doing clever things to improve their lives! In a reply, I thanked him, and since the “Two Anonymous Inmates / County Jail, USA” at the top seemed vague, I asked what jail his brother was in. He replied:

I am so happy to hear that you may be interested. They are in Escambia county jail which is close to Mobile, Alabama

We sat on the submission for a while, and eventually I decided that the method the letter describes of heating water to make instant coffee would be a fun “1+2+3” project for the magazine. 1+2+3’s are one-page instructions for quick, simple projects. We like to have 2-3 of these mini-projects interspersed through each issue.

So we put the submission into the production pipeline: editing the text, fact-checking, working with an illustrator, designing the page, etc. Fairly late in the magazine production cycle, after our attention was no longer dominated by more complicated project articles, Keith asked if anyone had ever actually tried this one. It seemed so trivially simple that we’d overlooked it; just bridge a 9V battery with a chewing gum wrapper, after peeling off some of its label (presumably to allow more current), and then nurse the tiny spark into a fire on some toilet paper. I said I’d try it, and then completely struck out trying to find a 9V battery with a peelable label, as specified. I remember these from my childhood, but realized that I hadn’t seen a 9V battery like this in decades. I recalled thinking momentarily, when I’d first read the letter, that 9V batteries didn’t have peelable labels anymore, but put it out of my mind, assuming it was just be an off-brand– maybe some regional holdout battery brand sold in Alabama.

After filing the printing off of the case to expose bare metal, I found that the case metal was electrically isolated from both terminals. Hmm. And bridging the contacts directly didn’t do anything.  Now it seemed like a hoax that I had fallen for. I looked at the letter again, and read “fraud,” starting with the “Two Anonymous Inmates / County Jail, USA,” and the two names that were signed: “Doc” and “The Smart Guy” — which seemed too obvious and unimaginative to be realistic, like character names from some cheesy prison movie or TV show. (If so, has anyone seen it or have any ideas where this came from?  Maybe someone saw some movie and thought, “wow, that could be in MAKE.”)

Still, on the off-chance that the trick did work with some obscure, regional brand of 9V battery, I wanted to find out what battery brand was needed. I emailed to ask, got no response, and then went into full cyber-stalking mode, sending more emails, and searching on the sender’s name (or at least the name in the From field of the emails), which was fairly distinctive. I pulled up what seemed to be his resume, left voicemails at the number listed, and also sent messages via Facebook to accounts that seemed to be his and his sisters’. Nothing. Meanwhile, Keith also did some investigating, and did the smartest thing: he called up the Alabama Board of Corrections (which I believe has jurisdiction over the county jails) and asked them if there were any inmates at Escambia who had that last name. The answer was no.

The page looked great, with beautiful illustrations and other examples of loving care that we like to put into MAKE, but we decided to kill it. You can see it above. Needless to say, if this was indeed a fabrication, this is not a nice thing to do. And if it isn’t, I’d still love to know what brand of 9V battery you need, and where you can get one.