American innovation comes to the lowly prison toilet

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. — How many times each day does the average prison inmate flush the toilet?

Ponder that. The answer comes later.

First, take a walk through Metcraft Industries in Lee's Summit outside Kansas City with a guy named Audie Murphy who, if names account for anything, should end up being the most highly decorated prison toilet inventor in American history.

He puts on safety goggles before he enters the plant's busy production floor and heads toward the lab in back.

The 20-by-40-foot room has no windows, and its doors are kept locked. It’s where Murphy, the small company’s research and development director, does his secret work.

“We wouldn’t let people who work here in there,” Murphy shouts over the machinery.

He opens the door and there's his baby: bright, shiny, stainless steel and sitting proud on a raised platform like the latest rocket in a defense plant.

It’s a toilet. But not just any toilet. It’s Metcraft Industries’ patent-pending high-efficiency prison toilet, the one that caused a buzz at recent trade shows in Long Beach, Calif., and Nashville, Tenn.

The American Correctional Association wants to write about the toilet in its newsletter. Metcraft has acquired another factory in Harrisonville, Mo., in anticipation of spiked sales.

So what’s the fuss? Murphy’s design of a “reseal cylinder” and other features allows the toilet to flush efficiently using only one gallon of water. He says it actually works at eight-tenths of a gallon. Many older prisons still have units that use three, four or even five gallons.

Which gets back to the opening question — how many times a day does an inmate flush?

According to industry experts, as many as 30. Far more often than typical people, but the average person probably doesn’t use his or her toilet for an ashtray, to dispose of contraband or to cool drinks.

Yes, inmates do that. They put pop cans into the bowl and flush occasionally to keep the water cool.

Know, too, that plumbing fixtures in prison are different. The inner workings are behind the wall. Usually there’s not even a flush handle because it could be used as a weapon.

The special fixtures also have to be far tougher than the norm. As one industry type said, “The toilet is the last thing an inmate has to break.”

Industry experts and prison officials say retrofitting prisons with Murphy’s new high-efficiency toilet could mean huge savings in monthly water bills — bills generally paid by taxpayers. Beyond that, the invention could play a key role in the push for American prisons to go green.

And at a time when it’s said that America doesn’t manufacture anything anymore, here’s a small firm in a tough economy that seemingly has made a better mousetrap and is getting ready to expand and hire more workers.

“I’ve seen it — it works,” said Steve Connaughton, a product manager for water technologies at Sloan Valve Co., a Chicago-based company that is the largest maker of toilet valves.

Read the full story at