Limos With a `Prisoner' Label

Nevada hopes that inmates cutting $25,000 cars in two will stretch work-program profits. NOT-SO-FREE ENTERPRISE

CECIL MILLER gets paid for sawing new cars in half. That's not the unusual part, though. What's unusual is that Mr. Miller is a convict, and he splinters the cars with the blessing of the state of Nevada. In fact, he earns the state money by doing it.

Miller is part of a novel prison program in which inmates at the Southern Desert Correctional Center 40 miles north of Las Vegas make limousines.

Not license plates. But stretch limos made out of modified Lincoln Town cars - and sold to the public.

``The capability of producing a high-quality product in prison is possible,'' says Howard Skolnik, head of the state's prison industries program.

Beset by bulging prison populations and shrinking treasuries, many states are expanding convict labor programs. This includes more traditional state-run enterprises, where inmates produce such things as office furniture and road signs, as well as newer ones, like the venture here, where private firms hire inmates to manufacture goods.

Twenty states now have programs where convicts do work behind bars for private companies. They take hotel reservations in Arizona, make designer underwear in Washington, and fashion belt buckles in Idaho.

Economics is a driving force behind the trend. The average annual cost of incarceration in the United States is $16,500 per inmate, and some of the money convicts make goes to the state to offset room and board.

But there are also social benefits. Supporters of prison work programs contend they foster job skills and a sense of purpose among prisoners. They can reduce idleness and restlessness.

``There is a trend in America to demand that prisoners at least be allowed to work when they want to,'' says Hardy Rauch of the American Correctional Association.

Perhaps nowhere has convict capitalism taken such an unusual twist as in this cinderblock and stucco facility in a desert moonscape. While many prison work programs involve simple assembly or manufacture, this one is more sophisticated - and risky.

The state puts out $25,000 to buy a new car and then turns it over to inmates to chop, strip, grind, weld, wire, and eventually turn into a limo that sells for about $45,000 on the street.

``If you cut a car wrong, you're not talking about simply being out $200 worth of wood,'' Mr. Skolnik says.

The idea began through a bit of serendipity. Two years ago Skolnik met Anthony Pusateri, who had been in the limousine manufacturing business in the Midwest, on a flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. Skolnik asked him what he did for a living. Later, when he suggested they build limos behind bars, Mr. Pusateri scoffed.

Pusateri did agree, however, to visit the prison the next day. Impressed by work the prison did on state cars and the mechanical skills of the inmates, he committed to the venture, and Emerald Coach Works was born.

Pusateri helped train inmates and acts as a technical adviser. He buys the finished limos from the state, then resells them.

``It turns out one of the best advantages for us is the higher quality workmanship,'' he says, sitting in a small office in the prison. Outside, sparks cascade from beneath a limo on a hoist. Nearby, a Lincoln sits severed, the work of an inmate with a hacksaw.

``What's amazing is how these guys can improvise,'' he says. ``They want to work. That's the big factor.''

Businesses frequently oppose convict labor programs because they fear competition. Unions complain they take jobs from law-abiding citizens. But the two-room shop here, inside hoops of barbed wire beneath a chromium sun, has not produced any wrath yet. It represents a fraction of the limo market.

``More power to them,'' says Wayne Rand of Krystal Koach, a California-based limousine maker.

Since the inmates began turning out limos this spring, Nevada has lost money on each of the five cars produced. But officials say they are getting the operation down to four weeks per limo, and should start making money soon.

Security is fastidious. Every tool is logged in and out. Although someone recently tried to smuggle out a chisel, shenanigans are few.

``This job not only keeps their minds busy but allows them to send money home to their families,'' says Donald Herman, a sturdily built former guard who supervises the operation. ``They are not going to jeopardize that.''

Indeed, hundreds of convicts at this 1,500-inmate medium-security facility are lined up to take the 16 jobs on the limo line. The inmates make $3.35 an hour.

Out of their pay, 25 percent goes to defray incarceration costs, 5 percent to a fund to compensate crime victims, and 50 percent to a forced savings account. The rest can be spent as inmates wish.

``It is much better than standing around in the yard,'' says Carl Ray, who is serving 20 years for robbery.

Louis Ermer used to work in the prison kitchen. Now he shapes walnut cabinets for the cars, a craft he practiced on the outside and is teaching others. ``What I'm doing here could earn someone $40,000 a year when they get out,'' says the tatooed inmate, who is serving time for bigamy.

Barrel-chested Randy Kern upholsters interiors.

``I'm saving money so when I get out I've got a start,'' says Mr. Kern, who has sent his parents pictures of him working. He pauses, then adds:

``Famous people are going to be riding in these cars.''

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