A local jail is giving inmates plenty to do that will help taxpayers on the outside. They're painting designs on 100 rain barrels which eventually be sold to the public. This is a one-of-a-kind program in the region and McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy is glad these idle hands can stay a little busier.

"We don't have enough for them to do. So this is a great opportunity for them to come in and work and express themselves a little bit artistically and turn out some rain barrels that will go into the public and do some good as far as water conservation," says Guy.

He says the response has been positive and enthusiastic. These "Picassos in stripes" work in small groups of three or four at a time. So far around a dozen of the current 260 inmates have participated since it all started in early January.

"Generally, inmates are wanting to work. They want to do something," explains Guy. "You don't change people very much just by putting them in a cell and locking the door." He goes on to say that the project has helped make the jail easier to operate. Many more inmates are expressing interest in joining the program.

Pat Armstrong is executive director of the Southeast Tennessee Resource Conservation and Development Council (SETNRCDC). Guy sits on the board of the council which has held rain barrel workshops for the public, teaching how to collect and reuse the water. The inmate project seemed like a great pairing to meet the goals of the council and the jail. Armstrong secured the state funding for the project and has been impressed by the inmates' artwork so far.

"They've done geometrics. They've done some things with taping. They've had some stencils. No two barrels are the same," says Armstrong.

Inmates like Jeffery Sparks are uncovering talents they didn't know they had while improving their social skills. As he says, it's a great opportunity to "get out of the pod" for a while.

"The program helps me release stress," explains Sparks. "It's helps with my self-control and with anger management."

At 23 years old, he's been in and out of jail since high school. Up for parole in July, Sparks hopes to use his new interest in the real world soon.

"I could pursue painting houses or something, or painting pictures. I could do something with it if I want to," adds Sparks.

They've finished around half the barrels which were donated by Coca-Cola Bottling of Cleveland, Tennessee. Proceeds from sales will go toward expanding the art program. For information on purchasing a rain barrel, contact the SETNRCDC at 423-507-1252.