Pamela Smart, 39
Sentence: Life without parole
Held at: Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, N.Y.

Bedtime, Pamela Smart says, is the worst part of the day. That's when "I think and pray most about all the wasted lives in my past and present," she says. The former school administrator from New Hampshire, convicted in 1991 of manipulating her 16-year-old student lover Billy Flynn into killing her husband, Gregg, has spent many such nights—and seems destined to spend many more. Sitting in a conference room at Bedford Hills, by turns self-deprecating and introspective, the woman whose case became a national sensation, spawning the movie To Die For, offers her formula for survival. "My spirit," she says, "gets the most strength from being busy."

In that sense Smart has used the 14 years she has spent at Bedford Hills productively. She has earned two master's degrees—one in law and one in English literature—and is now participating in a program in pastoral counseling (her studies have all been privately funded). Her goal is to set up an inmate-to-inmate counseling program at the prison. In the mornings she serves as a teacher's aide, tutoring other inmates, and in the afternoons she works as a porter, scrubbing floors and the like. In her spare time she reads and watches television with other inmates—" Prison Break is really popular," she says. She and some other inmates prepare their own food, though Smart professes that she has little appetite and generally takes only one meal a day.

The reality of her incarceration is never far away. Eleven years ago she was beaten by two other inmates and has a plate in the left side of her face. She takes medication for chronic pain and, according to family friend Dr. Eleanor Pam, sometimes thinks of suicide. "She has many, many, many dark days," says Dr. Pam.

With all appeals exhausted, Smart and her supporters have continued to maintain that she was railroaded. They argue that someday she deserves a chance for parole, pointing out that the actual triggerman, Flynn, is eligible for release in 2018. But two years ago New Hampshire's Gov. John Lynch rejected the idea of giving Smart a break for such a "brutal" crime. "She was fairly convicted by a jury of New Hampshire citizens," he said, "and she was fairly sentenced." That hasn't deterred her family and friends. "I won't allow her to give up," says her mother, Linda Wojas. Yet even Smart seems aware that, at this point, redemption may be nearer at hand than freedom. As she put it in an open letter two years ago, "I live every day with the ominous realization that I will only leave here in a casket."

Sante Kimes, 72
Sentence: Life
Held at: Bedford Hills
Earliest release date: 2119

No one expected prison to soften septuagenarian scam artist Sante Kimes, who, with the help of her son Kenny, murdered an elderly woman in 1998 as part of a plan to steal the victim's $7 million Manhattan townhouse. But Kimes has managed to exceed even her own hard-boiled reputation. Though graying and frail, she has spent virtually all of her three years at Bedford Hills in solitary confinement—what prisoners call "the box"—for a wide range of offenses. She has been caught with a "shank"—a homemade prison knife (hers was fashioned out of a ballpoint pen)—and last year was written up for threatening a guard and causing a ruckus in her cell block. In that case Kimes objected to being served applesauce instead of tuna fish for dinner and shouted, "I will get you for this! You're trying to kill me!"

Meanwhile, Kenny, 32, who ratted out his mother on another murder charge and is now serving a life sentence in California, has proved to be a problem inmate in his own right. In 2000 he took a Court TV reporter hostage during an interview at New York's Clinton Correctional Facility and held a pen to her neck during a four-hour standoff before being overpowered by officers.

Keeping Sante in lockdown for 23 hours a day (she is allowed an hour of court-mandated exercise) reduces her opportunity for similar antics—not to mention sparing the guards and inmates her none-too-cheery presence. Says a source with knowledge of Bedford Hills: "She gives the other inmates the creeps."

Mark Hacking, 30
Sentence: Life
Held at: Utah State Prison, Draper, Utah
Earliest parole date: 2034

Mark Hacking couldn't quite make a success of himself in the real world. His lies about going to college and medical school led to his murdering his wife, Lori, in 2004 after she found out about his deception. But Hacking seems to be getting along quite nicely behind bars. "We've had no problems at all with him," says Utah Dept. of Corrections spokesman Jack Ford. "He keeps advancing in the system as far as privileges." The only glitch came last June, when authorities discovered that Hacking was sending out autograph samples to associates on the outside—and that the samples were then being auctioned online on so-called "murderabilia" Web sites. (When told not to pass along any more autographs, he readily agreed.) As a high-profile inmate, Hacking is housed in a maximum security facility at the prison for his own protection while he adapts to prison life. But at some point in the future, Hacking will likely be put in the general population. He will then be eligible to take college classes and perhaps work toward a real degree.

Richard Allen Davis, 52
Sentence: Death
Held at: San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, Calif.
Earliest release date: Still awaiting mandatory appeal

His crime—the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from a slumber party in 1993—made him a reviled figure throughout the country. In the years since, Richard Allen Davis has earned an equally dubious distinction as the pariah of San Quentin's death row. "He is probably the most hated person in the Department of Corrections," says San Quentin spokesman Sgt. Rudy Luna. Part of his notoriety stems from the fact that his crime spawned the "three strikes law," mandating 25-years-to-life for a third felony. Other inmates have spit on him; two years ago another convict launched an unprovoked attack on Davis, who was shackled and under escort for a medical appointment at the time.

Luna believes Davis has deteriorated "both physically and mentally." In an incident five years ago, he says, Davis threw a tray at him, but now he is quieter and almost reclusive, choosing to never go out in the prison yard. He prefers the last shower of the day so he can wash his prison garb in a bucket—some inmates become attached to their own pants and tee shirts—since items sent to the laundry are not inmate specific.

Last July, Davis was briefly taken to the hospital following an overdose of opiates. (Authorities suspect he got the drugs from one of his many visitors.) That incident cost him privileges, including contact visits, the use of a phone and the right to pursue his beloved hobby of painting, leaving him more isolated than ever.

Susan Smith, 35
Sentence: Life
Held at: Leath Correctional Institution, S.C.
Projected parole date: 2024

Susan Smith, who infamously drowned her two young sons by plunging them into a lake in South Carolina in 1994 while the boys were strapped into car seats, hasn't stopped attracting attention. In 2000 she was found to have had sex with two male prison guards. (Both guards were fired; Smith was deemed a victim and was not punished.) In 2003 she arranged to have a personal ad posted online, soliciting pen pals "who are not judgmental and who are sincere." The posting caused a furor and was quickly taken down. Says Rev. Toni White, Smith's longtime chaplain, who visits her once a month: "She can be pretty naive sometimes." But White also insists Smith is using her time behind bars to get her life together. "She has had a tremendous need to please in the past, particularly with men," says Rev. White. "But she has matured a lot." One sign of Smith's personal progress: She now serves as the chairwoman of her inmate representatives committee.

Eric Rudolph, 40
Sentence: Four life sentences, two 40-year sentences, two 20-year sentences
Held at: The U.S. Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum, Florence, Colo.
Earliest release date: None

For five years Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph evaded federal agents by hiding out, mostly on his own, in the North Carolina wilderness. But since pleading guilty in 2005 to the attack at the 1996 Atlanta Games, as well as bombings at two abortion clinics and a dance club, which killed two, Rudolph has had his powers of self-reliance put to a severe test. Inmates at the prison known as Supermax spend their days in 7-ft.-by-12-ft. self-contained living quarters, each with a bed, concrete desk, sink, toilet and shower. Visits with loved ones are noncontact, and TV is black-and-white. Rudolph is out of his cell for an hour a day of solitary exercise. In a series of letters to a reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, Rudolph complained that being sequestered 23 hours a day in a "closed-off world designed to isolate inmates from social and environmental stimuli" was inhumane. Ed Bales, a federal prison consultant who has worked with Supermax inmates, acknowledges that it is not hard to come unhinged under such conditions. "It's like being in the hole," says Bales. "After about five years they begin to lose their mental faculties."