Thursday, October 14, 2004

WARREN, Maine — Inmate Al Dumas says he knew zilch about repairing cars when he signed up for an auto-body work program at the minimum-security prison where he is trying to rewrite his criminal past.Then he worked on a 1967 Ford Mustang fastback to give it the look of Nicolas Cage’s “Eleanor” car in the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds,” and he transformed a rust-bucket Chevrolet Cavalier into a saucy, metal-flaked cruiser that looks like it just drove off the set of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.”

“I’ve come a long way. I feel pretty confident now,” Dumas, 32, said with a grin. He is hoping to parlay the skills he developed working on engines and restoring car shells doomed for the scrap yard into a lucrative job after his release in June.

Dumas is enrolled in the Saving Cars Behind Bars program at Maine’s Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, one of several state prisons across the country that has found success rehabilitating inmates by offering them auto-body and mechanics training. Although the numbers are hard to pinpoint, there is anecdotal evidence that programs in Nevada, Georgia, Maine and North Carolina are giving inmates at least a chance at making it on the outside.

Prisoner projects in Nevada range from turning out fiberglass bodies for designer and legendary driver Carroll Shelby to rebuilding tanker trucks. They even restored the first car that Elvis Presley gave to his mother: a late-1950s Cadillac.

The Nevada program is self-supporting. Inmates can buy their own tools to prepare for work on the outside, which most of them find, said Howard Skolnik, assistant director for the correction system’s industry programs.

“We’ll get a call from local dealers who say, ‘Do you have a good painter?’ ” said Mr. Skolnik.

In North Carolina, inmates specialize in restoring antique fire engines, but also do other work such as repainting a police department’s fleet, said Jerry McGrady, an instructor for a local community college that provides training to prisoners.

One of the restorations was a 1901 pumper with a big iron tank, in which inmates had to fabricate a new wagon wheel. Another was a 1947 American LaFrance fire engine, which they disassembled, rebuilt, repainted and reassembled.

Although Mr. McGrady doesn’t keep track of all the inmates after their release, he hears from some occasionally.

“Two have called me back and thanked me. They’re working in the [automotive] field,” he said.

Georgia’s Department of Corrections has a program that covers replacement of damaged auto-body parts and painting vehicles, as well as estimating costs for repairs and billing.

At the Lee Arrendalecompound in Alto, Ga., a pilot program offers an associate degree in automotive technology, which is popularwith Jason Kipfmiller, who is scheduled to be released in 2008.

Kipfmiller said he had only informal knowledge of what made cars work when he started, but the course has “augmented [his] knowledge by one hundredfold.” It also has taught him responsibility and organization, and has kept him out of trouble, he said.

“It opens up my horizons vastly,” said Kipfmiller, who is a top student in his class and has generated interest from a couple of prospective employers. “It really has had a profound impact on my life.”

The Maine program is run out of a three-bay garage within the unwalled, unfenced compound in Warren, set amid lush, rolling hills hugging the coast.

Auto-body instructor Brad Davis said that of all the former inmates who stay in touch with him, he could think of at least a half-dozen who now own body shops or work on cars individually.

“The cars used to be the product, but now I look at the students as being the product,” said Mr. Davis, who teaches both technical and social skills such as punctuality and interacting with others. “I think everybody gets something different out of it.”

The Bolduc program started about two years ago when muscle-car aficionado Al Barlow, the prison’s deputy warden, dreamed up the idea of saving doomed classics while keeping inmates from returning to prison — and at the same time turning a profit for the prison.

Saving Cars Behind Bars was an immediate hit with Mr. Bolduc’s 210 inmates and has motivated the small prison community, which is limited to inmates with less than five years on their sentences. Only six or eight prisoners are admitted at a time, and Mr. Davis tries to select men who have no skills in auto-body work.

Mr. Barlow learned about a 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302 four-speed that was rusting away in a field in central Maine.

“It’s almost like the car was calling out for us to save it,” said Mr. Barlow. “When people saw pictures of this car, they all laughed and said it’s a basket case.”

Working 4,000 hours over nearly two years, inmates rebuilt the Mustang’s body and repainted it the original “grabber” blue, sporting it up with a black stripe down the side. They reupholstered the seats, and the interior was upgraded to assembly-line perfection.

Inmates installed a rebuilt engine, working off the $5,000 cost by doing body work on a Mustang owned by the man who sold them the engine, Mr. Barlow said.

He said it cost about $18,000 to restore the car, but an auction on EBay brought in $35,000 from a collector in Woodstock, Ill., who said he was amazed by the work on a car that he never would have even attempted to restore. The difference, $17,000, was plowed back into the program.

“When I look at this being their first one, I can’t imagine what their next one’s going to look like,” said Don Swanson, who has 30 cars in his collection. “The car is a true showpiece and it’s something that I’m displaying proudly.”

There’s no shortage of work for the Bolduc crew. Vehicles in the state fleet are lined up, waiting to be repaired or overhauled.

“There’s no reason why other programs can’t be designed to be self-supporting,” said Democratic Rep. Stanley Gerzofsky, a Maine legislator who serves on the Criminal Justice Committee, which oversees prison issues.

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