Limos Behind Bars

Posted on March 1, 1989 by LCT Staff

Southern Desert Correctional Center is a medium security prison lying at the base of the foothills 30 miles north of Las Vegas. The facility is home to more than 1500 inmates from all parts of the country. Inmates with six month sentences wear fluorescent orange overalls. Inmates dressed in denim have longer terms including life imprisonment…life without possibility of parole...double life...and life plus 100 years. Fifteen of these inmates are building limousines for a new company called Emerald Coach.

Tony Pusateri (standing) has formed Emerald Coach to distribute limousines manufacturered by inmates at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Nevada.
Tony Pusateri (standing) has formed Emerald Coach to distribute limousines manufacturered by inmates at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Nevada.

Emerald Coach was conceived in August 1987 when Tony Pusateri happened to sit next to Nevada Prison Industries assistant director Howard Skolnik on a three-hour flight between Las Vegas and Chicago. “He asked what I did and I told him I build limousines,” Tony recalls. At the time, Tony operated a limousine repair facility in Chicago, and had previously manufactured limousines for five years with Diamond Coachbuilders.

“He asked if I had ever considered building limos in prison,” Tony continues, “and I told him I didn’t think it was the best idea I’d ever heard. But we got talking about it and he convinced me to come out and look at the facility to see what he was doing.”

During his visit to the prison, Tony saw that the idea had potential. “They had a bodyshop, woodshop, and people with mechanical backgrounds,” he says. “I talked with 15 or 20 of the guys and found that they had people trained in welding, bodywork, and upholstery. And you have access to another 1500 inmates. Howard and I talked about it and decided it would be an interesting venture so together.”

Tony agreed with the State of Nevada to help set up a manufacturing facility, train inmates, and serve as an ongoing technical consultant. Since moving to Las Vegas last August, he has spent five or six workdays a week behind bars developing a parts inventory, installing equipment, and forming a crew. The first car was cut last October.

“At first I was a little skeptical about working in an institution.” Tony admits, “and I think it took the state prison system by surprise that anyone was willing to bring in a new Cadillac or Lincoln and let inmates cut it in half, but it has worked out extremely well. By the third car, I was able to leave them alone. Simon, our welder, was a welder on the outside. Bob has twenty-five years of sheet metal experience. Terry has been in upholstery for five years He learned that in prison. Howard is an electrical engineer. Keith was a sheet metal man on the street... So we’ve got every angle covered. They’re very meticulous and they like what they’re doing.”

Emerald Coach is housed in two large shops. Metal work takes place in one shop while interiors and vinyl roofs are installed next door. A paint booth is outside. Except for its chain-link boundaries, the facility resembles many other medium size coach-building operations.

“You get to know the guys,” Tony says, “and you feel like you’re in a typical shop until you stop and realize where you are. The only thing you have to worry about, and it’s only happened once, is when they have problems out in the yard. There was a threat of a riot... But they really can’t get to us here. If they think there is going to be a problem, they don’t let any of the free staff in.”

By federal law, when inmates manufacture products to be sold outside the state of origin, they must be paid at least minimum wage. “The way it works,” says Tony, “is that I pay the State of Nevada a certain amount per car. A portion of that money is given to the inmates equally. When we’re building five to six cars a month, it will equal approximately minimum wage. My labor force is the obvious advantage I have here. I’m able to put a quality car on the road for a very competitive price.”

Once Emerald hits three cars a month, inmates will receive at least the equivalent of minimum wage. Twenty-five percent of their pay is taken out for room and board. An additional five percent is deducted for a victim’s fund. After federal taxes...the remainder can be used at the prison store for things like coffee, cigarettes, and toiletries — or saved in a trust account until an inmate is released.

By working an inmate is also eligible to have a seven by ten-foot cell to himself rather than share one with another person. He may also choose to buy a television from the prison store. And for each month on the job, an inmate has ten days deducted from his sentence.

The 17 P.I. programs in operation in Nevada prisons include wood milling, furniture manufacturing, sheet metal fabrication, detergent and soap production, garment manufacturing, and the traditional license plate stamping. Some of the projects are owned and operated by the prison while others are joint ventures with private companies. Several of these programs are supervised by Bob Leiberger who, like Tony, comes into the prison everyday as a member of the free staff. He also owns JTL Industries, a company that markets wooden furniture manufactured in the prison.

“Prison industries are not high-tech at all,” Bob explains. “The limousine program is the most sophisticated thing ever done in a prison as far as we know. This is a very progressive thing and a lot of people said, ‘You’ll never do it.’ Howard Skolnick has his future on the line and the future of prison industries in Nevada is on the line. Howard’s philosophy is that the more prison industries you have in the state...the better it is for the inmates because it gives them a skill.

“When your sentence expires in the State of Nevada,” he continues, “they give you $20. If you’ve been institutionalized for several years and you have no family, your $20 won’t go far and you’ll probably commit a crime again very soon. It’s a revolving door. But we’ve had inmates who have saved as much as $5000 by working here. When they leave, they’ll have that plus they’ve also learned a trade.” Project managers like Bob and Tony write letters of recommendation to help workers find jobs on the outside.

In addition to the prison industry programs, there are also positions for clerks, firemen, cooks, and similar things in the facility. A total of about 150 jobs are available, and dozens of inmates are waiting to fill them. “I have ten or 20 people a day filling out applications to do whatever they can...even sweeping the floors,” says Tony. “They want something to do and a lot of them are willing to work for nothing.”

Mikey was a waiter and bellman in a Las Vegas hotel until two years ago. Now he changes springs, installs fuel lines and mufflers, undercoats, and cleans up over-welding. It is the first mechanical work he has ever done.

“I’m definitely ahead career-wise,” Mikey believes. “I didn’t have any experience before, but I think this will apply when I get out. There’s nothing that can compensate for confinement ... But working really helps pass the time.”

Cecil Miller agrees. During his two and a half years at the facility, Cecil has always worked in P.I. programs. Sitting around out there doing nothing just doesn’t do it for me,” he says.

A maintenance engineer on the street, Cecil is now shop foreman for Emerald Coach. “I oversee everything except upholstery,” he says, “and, overall, the quality of our product probably isn’t any different from companies on the outside. A worker here will put more into the job because there isn’t any other activity, and they appreciate the benefits like the pay and the chance for a single room.”

Cecil and Brian Monagan contributed a number of design ideas that have been incorporated in Emerald limousines. “We’ve spent five months improving what we’re doing,” says Cecil, “and we have done a lot of strengthening and refining. We have a way that the electrical system is accessible without tearing the whole interior out.” During a cruise around the yard, he points out several recent changes in the seats and cabinets.

While Cecil plans to return to his former career, Brian is seriously considering a future in limousine design and manufacturing. Brian did the bodywork on Emerald’s first two cars and then moved into air conditioning when Bob Holstein, who has 25 years of experience as a bodyman, joined the project.

“I work on new ideas,” says Brian. “I’m a boat builder, I worked in cryogenics, and I’ve built an airplane or two. I’m very new at limousines so I have to use a lot of ideas from boats.

“For me,” he continues, “this is more than a job. I’m seriously looking at staying in this when I get out. There’s room for fresh ideas. The boat industry has been bought up by large corporations and it’s hard to get new ideas across, but the limo industry still has small companies. This program is a great opportunity and I think other industries ought to look at prison labor.”

If Emerald Coach succeeds, it will certainly encourage other industries to explore prison industry programs. But the jury is still out. Tony is just launching his marketing program and hopes that limousine buyers will appreciate the careful work done by his crew. “Anyone who wants to purchase a car from me can come see the facility and meet the workers. You’ll find we’ve got some pretty good guys.”

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