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.
Regulations of prison floss vary around the country.
In northeastern Texas, officials believe Antonio Lara used dental floss and toothpaste to saw his way out of a cell at a county jail and kill a gang rival in 2000.
"We do not carry traditional dental floss because of security concerns," said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Coffield Unit near Palestine, Texas. "Floss can be used to make ropes, weapons, cut through bars, even just reinforce the grip on a shank."
Instead, inmates are allowed plastic holders with a small piece of floss stretched across, he said.
In California, the state approves Floss Loops. Regular floss can be used as a garrote, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"But for that matter, you can pull thread from your socks or bed linens to choke someone. It's not just razor blades and toothbrush shanks in prison. We've seen underwear used as a weapon."
New York's state prison system permits dental floss, but only the unwaxed variety. The waxed is "much stronger," said spokesman Peter Cutler. He said prison security officials have banned it after having "experience" with the waxed variety. He would not elaborate.
The Westchester jail does ban toothpicks and water picks; inmates are allowed to have a 3-inch-long toothbrush, Pruyne said. Kayser said he also makes a "rubber-type" flexible toothbrush that's 4 1/4 inches long, but said anything longer could be fashioned into a weapon.
It was waxed floss that was used in Wisconsin in 1997 by inmates Timothy Dummer and Guy Dunwald. They used ropes of braided floss to get over a wall at the Green Bay Correctional Institution. They were quickly recaptured and had five years added to their sentences.
A television story about the episode said the prisoners had collected 18,975 feet -- more than 3 1/2 miles -- of dental floss.
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.
In 1991, three inmates bought hundreds of yards of dental floss from the store at the Hays County Jail in Illinois and turned it into a ladder of sorts.
"It was ingenious," said U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth when the men pleaded guilty to attempted escape. "They made the rope out of dental floss and used cardboard salt-and-pepper containers for stirrups on the ladder. ... That dental floss is strong."