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Floss Loops are circles of rubbery floss advertised as
Steven Kayser/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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By JIM FITZGERALD
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.--Dental floss may prevent toothaches, but it's given jailers plenty of headaches.
When a group of New York prisoners sued last month to demand access to dental floss, officials said they had to consider "security issues." As it turns out, jail--and jailbreak--history is tightly tangled with the stringy decay fighter.
In Texas, officials believe a prisoner used floss to cut his way out of his cell, then jumped a fellow inmate and knifed him to death.
In Maryland, Illinois, West Virginia and Wisconsin, inmates collected enough floss to braid it into ropes and escape, or try to, over prison walls.
A group of escaped prisoners on the run in Texas used floss to sew up their gunshot wounds.
And a man in an Illinois jail used floss to stitch together the dummy he left in his bed when he took off.
Experts say floss, or the plastic holder it sometimes comes in, has been used to strangle enemies, to escape, to saw through bars, to pick handcuffs, to make a hand grip on a shank and to hoist contraband from one level of cells to another.
"These inmates can make a weapon out of a chewing-gum wrapper," said Steven Kayser, whose company sells a floss product advertised as prison-safe. "Floss is right up there on the danger list."
Officials at the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla were somewhat leery when 11 inmates, acting without a lawyer, filed a $500 million lawsuit demanding access to dental floss.
Lead plaintiff Santiago Gomez said the jail was "violating inmates' federally protected civil rights by not allowing inmates access to dental floss, while acknowledging that it will result in cavities if you fail to floss your teeth."
He said the inmates had been brushing three times a day, "tongue and gums included," but were still getting cavities, bleeding gums, enduring constant tooth drilling and mental anguish.
Deputy Commissioner Justin Pruyne said the jail is not required to supply floss to inmates and said floss posed security concerns. But the jail has since brought in a supply of Kayser's "Floss Loops"--circles of rubbery floss with no hard plastic that are designed to break easily before they can be used as a weapon.
It's not clear if that has satisfied the prisoners. The lawsuit has not been dropped.
An episode of the science TV show "Mythbusters" a few years ago set up an experiment to challenge the floss-as-security-risk theory. The show used a floss-equipped robot to test whether floss--combined with toothpaste to make it more abrasive--could really saw through a bar on a jail cell.
The feat was declared "plausible," given 300 days at eight hours a day--the kind of time that an inmate might have.
In 1994, Robert Shepard used a floss rope braided as a telephone cord to scale an 18-foot wall at the South Central Regional Jail in West Virginia. He was on the lam for about five weeks. He was already being disciplined for scraping away the mortar between bricks in his cell.