WARREN – Inmates who transformed beaten, rusting shells of classic cars into dazzling dream-mobiles are showing that it’s not just cars that are being rehabilitated in the state prison compound here.

Ask Al Dumas, who completes his sentence at the minimum-security Bolduc Correctional Facility in 10 months. The 32-year-old Dumas said he knew zilch about restoring cars when he enrolled in the car-rehab program.

Then he did body work on a 1967 Ford Mustang fastback to give it the look of Nicholas Cage’s “Eleanor Car” in the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds.” And he helped transform a rust-bucket Chevy Cavalier into saucy, dark-blue metal-flaked cruiser that looks like it just drove off the set of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.”

“I’ve come a long way,” Dumas said with a proud grin, adding that he’s incorporated engine work with his new skills in body work for life on the outside. “I feel pretty confident now.”

Dumas isn’t the only release-bound inmate who’s found a road to success in the Saving Cars Behind Bars program, which is run out of a three-bay garage within the unwalled, unfenced compound amid lush, rolling hills hugging Maine’s 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 their 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 Davis, who teaches not only technical skills, but social skills like showing up on time and interacting with others. “I think everybody gets something different out of it.”

Maine is not alone among the state prison systems that offer auto body and mechanics training to inmates, said Al Barlow, deputy warden at Bolduc, which prepares its 210 inmates for life on the outside.

But Maine’s program has a different, if not unique, element.

About two years ago, muscle-car aficionado Barlow 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 born.

The program was an immediate hit with inmates, but only six or eight at a time are admitted, and it’s limited to six months at a time. Davis tries to pick inmates who start off with no skills in auto-body work.

As the program took shape, Barlow learned about a 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302 four-speed rusting away in a field in the central Maine town of Pittsfield.

“It’s almost like the car was calling out for us to save it,” said 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.

Barlow said it cost about $18,000 to restore the car, but an auction on e-Bay fetched $35,000 from Don Swanson, a collector in Woodstock, Ill. Swanson said he was amazed by the workmanship on a car 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 Swanson, who has 30 cars in his collection. “The car is a true showpiece and it’s something that I’m displaying proudly.”

Swanson said he’s doubly pleased with his purchase because it dovetailed the rehabilitation of an automobile with the rehabilitation of individuals.

Now, Barlow’s program is looking for another classic muscle car that can be restored and sold to the highest bidder. The program will job out the drive train for rehabilitation.

The auto body students have plenty of other work as well, fixing vehicles in the state fleet and taking on special orders for the Chevy Cavalier and the 67 Mustang that Dumas and fellow inmates worked on.

The program has motivated the whole Bolduc facility, which is limited to prisoners with less than five years on their sentences, said Barlow.

Barlow is committed to turning some of the car-restoration profits over to Habitat for Humanity, the home-building program in which some inmates work. The idea is well-received by many of the Bolduc inmates, who see it as a way to pay a debt to society, said Barlow.

Bolduc inmates who also work in a variety of other areas, such as state highways, public works for towns and cities in the area, tending a small herd of cattle and growing crops.

The Saving Cars Behind Bars program can serve as an example of how to combine job training and rehabilitation with a moneymaking venture, said a state legislator who serves on the Criminal Justice Committee.

“There’s no reason why other programs can’t be designed to be self-supporting,” said Rep. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.



On the Net:

Bolduc Correctional Facility: http://www.maine.gov/corrections/Facilities/bcf.htm

AP-ES-08-30-04 1230EDT



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