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Atlanta Jail Asks Inmates to Put New Locks to the Test

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(ATLANTA) -- An Atlanta jail is offering $20 worth of commissary items to the inmate who can defeat its new lock system.

Fulton County Jail inmates have been able to break the current locks of their cells and roam free, which compromises the safety of the jail, said Tracy Flanagan, public information officer at the Fulton County Sheriff's Office.

"Imagine your dorm hall – you've got all the doors down a hall," she said, explaining the jail's layout. "Except in a jail you have a second floor and a first floor where inmates live. Those are their cells.

"All the cells -- about 20 or so -- are in a zone, and then the zone is locked."

Flanagan said inmates have been "coming out any time they wanted," even during lockdowns.

Flanagan said the jail is trying to purchase new locks, and is looking into a company that believes its lock would "be sufficient in keeping inmates in their cells."

But Fulton County Jail is not ready to invest in those locks without testing them first, using inmates who know the system better than anyone else. The jail has installed nine new locks in one housing zone during the trial period.

Flanagan said that each lock costs between $1,500-$1,700, depending on the amount of work that needs to be done on the cell doors. There are a total of 1,310 cells in Fulton County Jail.

According to Joe Hatcher, a professor of psychology at Ripon College who has been working in corrections for the past five years, Fulton County is relying on its best assets to solve its security problem.

"If you hired somebody to try to break into your house when you thought you had a good security system, and they found a way to do it, it's really important for you to know," he said. "Asking the inmates to do it -- that's a way to find a solution to a really complex problem."

Hatcher said he'd never heard of a jail where inmates could break the lock off their cells, but views the challenge positively.

"This is not a safe situation for many people," he said. "In jails, there are many people who have enemies who are weaker than other people -- they are potential prey. They'll feel better if they find a way for people to stay in their cells."

Using people with a criminal past to help figure out glitches in a system is not a novel idea.

"Inmates know the system in a very different way from how the staff  know the system," he said. "Food and any kind of privilege is a very strong reinforcement if you're incarcerated. It takes up a much bigger part of your life than people on the outside imagine."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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