Prison Coffee Hoax?

Prison Coffee 1+2+3

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.

38 thoughts on “Prison Coffee Hoax?

  1. duo says:

    this would work with steel wool

    1. John says:

      That’s what I was thinking. I’ve done the steel wool with 9v thing. I wonder if you shredded a foil gum wrapper if it’d have the same effect.

  2. Randy says:

    The gum wrapper and outlet method would be used a majority of the time if a lighter was unavailable.

  3. Jesse Ransom says:

    this could work i havent seen it in any prison movies but the battery hack might work ok it would just have to be between the positive and negative and you could hold onto it with your shank so you dont get burnt lol. sorry had to throw that in.

  4. charris1980 says:

    Huh, don’t attempt w/o adult supervision? I hope the prisoners read that part carefully. “GAURD, I need your supervision please!!”

  5. euio says:

    I don’t think it is a hoax.

    His letter never says 9-volt. And the picture is clearly using a 1.5V cell. I use Duracell Procell batteries almost exclusively and just peeled the plastic label off of a AAA battery. It peels very much like the picture. I assumed the case would be connected to the negative terminal, but instead is connected to the positive terminal. I did not try to start a fire, but it looks just as depicted. While I agree that a 9-volt would work better (if you bridge the two terminals), you might be able to get a 1.5-volt cell to work with a little practice.

    1. Prison Coffee Hoax? Paul Spinrad says:

      Wow, yes, you’re right — the letter never says 9V and the sketch looks like an AA or AAA 1.5 volt!

      Let’s try this with a 1.5 volt battery you can peel– I’ll see if I can find some– and if it works, super easy to document via video.


  6. tom fauquet says:

    I saw a guy start a fire with a battery on the Discovery channel show with a man and wife survival experts trekking in northern Scotland.

  7. Dave Brunker (@dbrunker) says:

    I’m skeptical just because there’s a good chance the bottle would break from being heated.

    1. Casey Borders says:

      Not if it’s not capped. When I was in Boy Scouts we used to boil eggs in paper cups. The water inside kept the paper from passing it’s flash point.

    2. Alex Young (@regularfry) says:

      I’ve seen this done with a plastic bottle. If the flames never touch the part of the bottle not in contact with the liquid, you’re fine. The plastic warps, but it doesn’t rupture.

  8. Chris D says:

    I have seen this method used with the” Black cat” EverReady super heavy duty can be peeled to the AAAA cells but a AA works as well peel the label from the battery to short the terminals with some conductive foil or Brillo (you bet ill wash the pots to get it) best one to get is a battery from a officers Radio those things last for months!!
    9V batt img here>>
    it is the only 9v battery I have ever seen supplied to government facilities or in them (from Clocks,Fire alarms, or remotes must be a institutional catalog staple [which by the way you can use to spark things with staples from magazines]) the paper” bomb”( tissue rolled up for internal regulated combustion) burns for about 3 min and you use a plastic soda bottle the water keeps the plastic from reaching melting temperature. additionally the foil from tabaco packaging is used for sparks

    you think that’s something?I have boiled water for coffee in container made from folded paper braced over a flame.

  9. dan b says:

    Seems strange that instructions for heating water would include “use a microwave” as one of the means of getting fire. But hoax or not, I enjoyed reading the letter and seeing the presentation of their technique that would have run in the magazine had you printed it.

  10. Josh says:

    The 9-volt theory doesn’t work anymore, but the 9-volt’s that were made with the flat carbon-zinc cells would allow for the gum wrapper to ignite. The battery cells in that type weren’t shielded like the alkaline ones we have today.

  11. Rob Cruickshank (@robcruickshank) says:

    Once, a friend of mine had a birthday, and somehow it wound up that we were all in the studio of InterAccess , an electronic art centre here in Toronto, with no way to make fire for the birthday candles. None of us smoked, and there were no matches, but there was a bench power supply and we found some pencil leads, struck an arc, and lit the candles. I don’t see any reason why the toilet paper couldn’t be ignited with a 1.5v battery.

  12. Dustin says:

    The battery should work. I don’t know where you got the 9 volt battery at. The drawing showed an AA battery. You don’t start the fire with the spark. you are shorting the battery with the foil from a gum wrapper. I played around with this stuff when i was a kid and you can get the small piece of foil very hot, but you have to work at it. Try it and let me know what you come up with.

  13. awasson says:

    This should work with 1.5 volts. I did something similar with steel wool and a D-cell when I was a kid. Scared the hell out of me when the steel wool flamed on : /

  14. caitlinsdad says:

    Wouldn’t the resourceful maker take the microwave and pencils and make some sort of stick welder instead to break out of jail?

  15. Roy says:

    All the time the magazine wasted on this hoax must explain why I have heard nothing regarding my article idea other than the short acknowledgement of my submission six months ago.

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Paul Spinrad is a broad-spectrum enthusiast, writer, maker, and dad who lives in San Francisco. He hatches schemes at

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