Time, Scarcity Spurs Prison Ingenuity

Of all the inmates in Atlanta's Metro State Prison for Women, Mary Rice has a talent that would make Martha Stewart pay attention.

She makes the prison version of hash brown potatoes -- using hot water and junk food from the commissary. The recipe includes Cheetos, potato chips, and beans and rice.

Primetime Live's Diane Sawyer recently spent a day and night in uniform inside the prison.

"It's kind of amazing. It's, like, different," Sawyer said upon tasting the dish. Rice replied proudly, "You would never believe it started out as a bag of chips."

Quotidian Pleasures

With limited resources and infinite reserves of time, prison inmates are notoriously resourceful.

Patrice Young, serving time for armed assault, showed Sawyer another quotidian pleasure to be had with a little ingenuity.

Using some batteries, a tiny wad of toilet paper and two staples or a thin strand from a pad of steel wool, she made a light for a cigarette -- considered contraband inside the inmates' living quarters.

Sometimes, inmates are denied even the most basic pleasures of conversation. Lockdown is an area where the most aggressive women are only allowed out of their cell one hour a day, sometimes for months at a time. Prisoners aren't allowed to see or talk to one another.

But Bridget Hash, a 21-year-old considered one of Metro's most troubled inmates, showed Sawyer that communication is possible in even the most difficult circumstances.

One technique is to make adjustments to the toilet -- making it a telephone to the cell and inmate below. "You drain the water out of the toilet and then you just call down to them and they answer." Hash said. "Just call in there like you're praying to the porcelain god."

Another method is called "fishing" -- for communicating with someone on the same floor. You tie a message to a string, and then the string to a blunt pencil, which can be hurled under your correspondent's door.

Dark Side of Creativity

But sometimes improvisation isn't so friendly. Inmates can also create weapons with what's at hand.

Padlocks slipped inside socks become blackjacks. Pencils and razors that made it past the guards can become shanks.

And prison officials sometimes have to watch out for inmates using their creativity against themselves. Of the inmates in Metro, 52 percent are mentally ill -- sometimes suicidal -- and guards have to watch even what type of clothing they use.

"For instance, an inmate could take this particular clothing," said Metro warden Thalrone Williams, picking up a prison shirt. "They could tear just the lining here, just rip it down, and make a noose out of it."