A real “Outlaw” car restoration: prison reform I can support and Gwinnett’s Sheriff gives dogs a second chance

The Nevada Southern Desert Correctional Center doesn’t just rehabilitate convicts, it rehabs classic cars — for a profit to the system.

The inmates restore vehicles for a unit of Silver State Industries, a wholly owned subsidiary of another “holding” institution, Nevada’s Department of Corrections.

“We Have the Time to Do It Right,” is one of the mantras on the unit’s corporate website; “Built with Conviction” is another.

As “inside” jobs go, this has qualities that are hard to find in prison—an intellectual challenge, prestige and a real sense of accomplishment in a job well done.

The auto shop’s present inventory includes 32 cars in some stage of restoration. Among them: two 1960s-era Corvettes, two 1960s Mustangs, a 1959 Thunderbird, a 1965 Malibu, a 1935 Chevy pickup and two 1969 GTOs.

The Nevada corrections system houses not only the automotive restoration shop, it also hosts “Big House Choppers,” a custom motorcycle shop.

Both shops are part of Silver State Industries, Inc., “a self supporting industrial program within the State of Nevada Department of Corrections…designed to reduce inmate idleness, teach job skills, and instill a good work ethic….”

Additionally, if an inmate is required to pay restitution into the state crime victims fund, part of their wages are garnished and deposited directly into the fund.

Prison industries have been criticized for competing with private sector businesses because inmates are paid less than workers outside prison walls or because they may receive preferential treatment in selling to state agencies and government-supported organizations. In the mid-1990s, when I visited Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia, state policy was that agency furniture purchases were required to be made from the state’s prison industry unless the requirement was waived.

Reading the article, I was reminded of Operation Second Chance/Gwinnett Jail Dogs, which Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway operates in conjunction with the Society of Humane Friends.

Conway’s program, which operates at no cost to taxpayers, rescues dogs that are about to be euthanized by the Gwinnettt County Animal Shelter, which was forced to euthanize 7434 animals in 2008.

“This is a program I knew could work here,” Conway said. “I knew we could make a difference not just for the dogs, but for the inmates, as well … I believe in the end we will save many lives and the inmates who are part of the program will be dramatically changed for the better.”

Conway said his jail is the first in Georgia, and possibly the country, to implement such a program. A self-professed animal lover, he said the “staggering” number of animals being euthanized for lack of resources convinced him that this was the right thing to do.

Officials said applicants were screened and interviewed before being approved. Sex offenders and those with violent histories weren’t even considered. Conway was looking for motivated, pre- and post-trial inmates who would be at the facility for at least six to eight weeks.

Inmate handlers won’t be left to their own devices, rather, they will be aided by veterinary technicians and professional groomers and trainers.

“When they go to someone’s house, they are going to be outstanding pets,” said trainer Margaret Parnell. “This is an exciting program.”

The Second Chance program is designed not just to save dogs that would otherwise be euthanized, but as part of the rehabilitation process for inmates and to teach them job skills:

 Leaders say the program is a win-win on all fronts, in that it literally saves the animals from death while giving inmates purpose and — perhaps — viable job training for their life on the other side.

James Wilson, a housing unit deputy, said he’s noticed a “kinder, more patient” attitude among the 28 inmates chosen from 100 applicants to reside in the dog unit.

Sheriff Conway and his wife, Gwinnett State Court Judge Carla Brown also founded a dog rescue specializing in German Shepherd dogs.