Inside a Maximum Security Women's Prison

ByABC News

Nov. 4, 2004 -- -- The Metro State Prison for Women in Atlanta is becoming home to a new kind of female criminal -- one more likely to be incarcerated for a violent crime than women in years past.

The maximum security facility is home to some of the roughest female prisoners in Georgia, and behind its walls is a unique, self-contained world with a culture of its own.

It is a culture of sometimes ingenious, sometimes unusual behavior, accompanied by constant fear and bouts of occasional violence.

Primetime Live's Diane Sawyer spent a day and a night inside the prison wearing a prison uniform to witness a culture that is very different from everyday society.

One of the areas of human experience most affected by prison is relationships. Kept apart from men for years at a stretch, the women of Metro -- like other jails -- have evolved a different approach to romance and family.

The hierarchy of desire in prison goes like this: In a world where women develop lesbian relationships, the most desirable partners are the ones that are most masculine. They're called "studs". The others are coded "femmes."

Much of the conflict in female prison is over sex. Ninety percent of the inmates say they have had sex with another woman while in prison.

Unlike in male prisons where sex is used as a tool of violence and intimidation, inmates and guards say the sex in female prisons tends not to be coercive. Instead, a lot of the violence in Metro is about jealousy or possessiveness.

The problem is, "there's only so many 'studs'," said Bridget Hash, a 21-year-old serving time for burglary. In her short hair and baggy clothes, she identifies herself as a lesbian -- and a stud.

One of Metro's most popular studs is a muscular, 6-foot, 2-inch woman named Shanterelle, who lives in "F" dorm -- one of the more dangerous buildings, where Metro's "problem children" are held.

They are the ones who have many disciplinary problems, problems with anger management and violence. Shanterelle has many suitors, who lavish her with presents like tennis shoes and radios.

"It's because of the way that she looks," said one inmate. "She looks like a man," said another.

For her part, Shanterelle says, "I'm a beautiful young lady ... I'm dominant." Prison had nothing to do with it, she told Sawyer. "I think I'm a superstar. Really I do."

Straight women told Sawyer that when they're facing years in prison, female studs are only a substitute for a man.

One inmate described how she admired another: "I looked at this girl and she looked like a man, and I was like 'woowee,' I might give her $20."

Shanterelle herself had been juggling two women. One she calls her associate and "wife"; the other is someone who lives in an adjacent cell. "Them two are bickering and badgering each other back and forth and I get in the middle," she said.

The "wife," who has a boyfriend on the outside who doesn't know about her relationship with Shanterelle, asked that ABC News not use her name. Shanterelle, like some other prisoners ABC news spoke with, asked that we not use her last name.

The "wife" told Sawyer that Shanterelle is "a very intelligent girl. She's warm-hearted and kind when she wants to be." But a couple of weeks after Sawyer left the prison, authorities there say Shanterelle punched the "wife" and broke her nose.

The absence of men in Metro makes itself felt in other ways.

During her stay, Sawyer received a cake from Gretchen Heath, who was serving a 12-year sentence for cocaine trafficking.

The cake was in an X-rated shape -- and Heath told Sawyer it was something that if she were a real inmate, she'd probably miss the most. When the assistant warden saw it, she asked, "Is that cake a dog bone?"

Another inmate showed Sawyer another bit of prison ingenuity. Prisoners have been known to fashion cigarette lighters and weapons from what they have at hand.

Patrice Young, serving a 10-year sentence for armed assault, showed Sawyer how to make a homemade sex toy from available materials.

In addition to sex, inmates at Metro have also re-created family support and obligations. Prison families take on roles. Some are fathers, mothers and daughters.

Patrice's prison "mom" said she got her position because people "look up to me because I listen to them and try to get some good advice."

Patrice considers herself the woman's daughter, and says it wasn't until she was in prison that she found the first family she ever really had.

"I never met my real mom, so it just feels good for her to even be there for me," she told Sawyer. "I've been locked up since I was 16 and it just feels good for somebody to be there for me."

In one part of the prison, women sometimes become mothers too. Prisoners sometimes arrive pregnant and give birth before their sentences are up.

The prison has a model program to help inmates create bonds with their children. They see them twice a month.

And for the day that inmates rejoin the real world, the prison also runs the equivalent of a small school.

There are classes in anger management, dog training, cosmetology and computers. Inmates can also get their high school equivalency degrees too.

"The only thing I used to do on a computer was play solitaire," said one inmate. "Now I know how to do a résumé, a cover letter, a thank you letter ... When you leave prison, you already have strikes against you, but if you leave with a skill, you feel like you can conquer."

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