There are three types of prisons: state, privately funded, and federal. In the federal system, the levels of security are minimum, medium, maximum, and supermax. An inmate's security level depends on their crime, history, medical needs, psychological needs, and other factors. Despite what you see in the movies, very few supermax facilities exist.
Inmates usually have jobs within the prisons, from tending the landscape to creating furniture for the federal government. There are paint crews, electricians, cooks -- a prison is a smaller version of society with a lot more rules and regulations. There are religious services, commissary (where inmates can order personal items, from ice cream to razors, depending on the security level), a "chow hall," a medical station, and executive offices for civilians who operate the institution.
Inmates have a long time to think - and some of that thinking creates ingenious tools to commit illegal activity, to cause harm, to escape. While incarcerated at Tennessee's Brushy Mountain, for example, James Earl Ray escaped over the fence using a ladder made of short pieces of wood and pipe (he was caught soon afterward).
Here are just a few examples of inmate ingenuity.
A "stinger" is a hot cable used to place in food or drink to heat up the food or drink. They are illegal in most prisons, although some state prisons sell them in the commissary (safe ones!). They endanger the prison as they can easily cause a fire. Inmates use the electrical outlet in their cells (or anywhere else) to plug the stinger in.
Handkerchiefs are easy and inexpensive to purchase in the commissary and with pencils, pens, color pencils, or even ink, inmates will decorate the handkerchiefs to send to loved ones. Sometimes the art will contain a hidden message. Most popular are cartoon characters in prison (Tweety wearing stripes and a ball & chain), history (popular with Hispanic inmates who practice using Aztec designs), and declarations of love for the recipient. They are also inexpensive to mail and not considered contraband (unless there is some type of hidden message).
Alcohol is popular in prison, and it is easy to make. It is called "hooch" or "pruno." The homemade alcohol's content ranges from 2% (a very weak beer) to 14% ( a strong wine). It is made easily with fresh fruit, sugar, a pinch of yeast, sauerkraut, or potatoes. The inmate(s) put all ingredient in a trash bag or bucket, let it "cook" (setting it near heat, such as behind a soda machine near the warm engine or on top of a light source, expedites fermentation), and then drink. Inmates have become very ill or even died from drinking hooch.
Depending on the security level of the prison, inmates may check out an iron from the offices. They turn the iron flat side - up (some will have a block carved specifically for this purpose). Using foil, or a foil-backed tray, they will place the food on the tray and cook it using the heat from the iron. Inmates often steal bits of food from the chow hall to add together and cook.
Makeup, tat ink, color
The Sunday newspaper is popular as it features color comics and advertising. Inmates will carefully tear apart all color are and separate it -- greens, blues, reds, etc. -- and by adding a bit of water it creates instant watercolor. It can be used for makeup (eyeshadow, lipstick) to color art (see "Art on Handkerchiefs") and to color artwork when color pencils are not available. A Qtip can be used as a paintbrush.
Zip guns are both dangerous for the person holding it, and usually small, easy to conceal. Some guns are fake, like the perfectly crafted 9mm an inmate made from soap and pencil lead (his escape was bungled because he forgot to make a barrel; the potential hostages caught on quick). Some guns are working, and they may fire one or two bullets. They operate just like a "real" gun with firing pins and barrels.
Just like in the "free world" (prison slang for outside of the walls) there are great tattoo artists, and there are bad artists. Great artists can make a lot of money behind bars, trading in food, transfer of money on their account (using outside resources), etc. For the tat gun, all you need is some ingenuity and a few pieces of items that every prison can supply: ink pen, tape, etc. Ink tips can be made from sharpened guitar strings, sharpened pens, or even stolen out of the HazMat jug of used needles in the medical area.
This is a basic tattoo gun. It works just like a gun on the "outside." Tattoo guns can be made from anything with the basic parts, to include a video game handheld controller.