LAS VEGAS - With the unemployment rate hitting a 30-year low and a state labor market that's stretched tighter each month, the Nevada Department of Prisons has a unique solution to the employee supply problem - workers with rap sheets.
Nevada has about 370 inmates earning paychecks by plying a trade for the state or for one of the half-dozen manufacturers that rent prison warehouse space.
You name it, state prisoners make it: office furniture, mattresses, waterbeds, stained and beveled glass, plaques, linen, draperies, detergent, fiberglass car bodies, woodworks, and, of course, license plates.
Prisoners also sort playing cards for casino gift shops and operate a book bindery, a print shop, a ranch with livestock and crops and an automotive restoration shop where the classic cars housed at Imperial Palace are refurbished. A spice-making operation is in the works.
It seems not even prison walls can keep out the nation's booming economy.
''They treat you just like a normal employer would treat his employee,'' said Tammy Cates, 41, who has worked for the past 16 months with about a dozen other women in a repackaging shop in Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Facility in North Las Vegas.
''There's a lot of people locked in here that are jealous of me because I got a job,'' said Cates, who has served about a third of her 18-year sentence for drug trafficking. ''I was able to buy my son a new pair of tennis shoes last month. It makes me feel good like I used to when I could provide for him.''
James King, 54, is serving two life sentences with the possibility of parole at Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs after murdering two people.
''It's kind of like havin' your own business,'' said King, who has spent three of the nine years he's been incarcerated working in the inmate auto shop. There, he has amassed some $5,000 worth of tools while earning about $5,600 annually.
If he is ever paroled, he will be able to take his tools, including a $500 wire welder he holds dear to his heart.
Like Cates and King, most of Nevada's employed prisoners say their jobs give them a renewed sense of responsibility after they've been locked up.
Johnie Lane, 45, has 4 1/2 years left on the burglary sentence he's serving at the men's prison in Indian Springs. He sends money he makes staining glass home to his mother and sisters, who put part of it in a savings account for him. Lane said he hopes to use the glass staining skills he's picked up inside to get a better job when he is released.
''I might try to get into the glazers' union,'' he said. ''Those guys make about $20 per hour.''
Though many of the workers have minimum skills, not all of them are paid minimum wage. Prisons Department Assistant Director Howard Skolnik who oversees prison industries said laborers toiling in car restoration shops can make up to $12 to $13 an hour, depending on how much they get done.
Of the 370 prisoners employed, 250 make products that will sell on the open market - to private businesses rather than Nevada state agencies. They are guaranteed minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.
Inmates who work directly for the prison system making closed-market products - goods that will be used by a state agency - or cooking, cleaning and performing general maintenance at the prisons earn as little as 10 cents an hour.
After the Buck Springs wildfire broke out of control June 3, inmates working for the Nevada Division of Forestry battled the six-day blaze for $1.10 an hour.
Prisoners seeking a position at any wage level simply apply for the position and the best candidate is chosen depending on behavior records and physical ability.
When it comes time to collect their earnings, inmates discover they have more than federal tax, Social Security and Medicare deductions taken from their paychecks.
About 35 percent of inmates' wages are deducted and paid to the state and split three ways: 24.5 percent for room and board, 5 percent to a general fund that victims of crimes can apply to for financial assistance and 5 percent for capital improvements to the prison industry program.
If an inmate owes restitution to a victim of his or her crime, that's also taken out.
After the state and federal government are through making deductions, inmates might keep nothing or as much as 65 percent of their wages.
''If I had 400 more jobs available tomorrow, they'd be filled immediately,'' said Skolnik.
Though only a fraction of the state's 9,500 inmates have jobs, the paid positions in farming, manufacturing and restorations have a significant financial result. Three years ago, a University of Nevada, Reno study estimated that state prison industries had an economic impact of $14.3 million on the state.
''We end up doing just a little better than breaking even,'' Skolnik said.
And, like any other enterprise looking to expand, Nevada's prison industries program files an annual earnings report, puts out a flashy catalog of the products it offers and is marketed via phone, fax and a traveling salesman.
The prisons department is even joining the dot-com revolution through an Internet site that advertises products and available services. Anyone interested can log on at www.fortunecity.com/business/interest/385.
Since 1987, Skolnik has been guiding that expansion. He is essentially chief executive officer of Silver State Industries, the corporate name the prison industries program does business under.
When Skolnik started working for the state, a single company was leasing space in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City and paying inmates to make waterbeds.
Seeing huge potential, he began giving tours of Nevada's eight prisons to company owners and board members, trying to sell them on the idea of letting inmates make their products.
''I tell business owners 'I got the talent that you need,' '' said Skolnik, who describes selling the idea of inmate labor to potential clients as an almost effortless task. ''It sells itself. I can guarantee business owners a workforce that won't be drunk or on drugs, won't call in saying their kids are sick. They won't show up late saying they had a flat tire on the way to work.''
Private companies pay their incarcerated employees minimum wage for work that might garner more lucrative wages outside prison walls.
''It's a good deal for the business owner. It's a good deal for the (inmate) workers,'' said Richie Clyne, co-owner of the The Auto Collections at Imperial Palace and one of Silver State Industries' oldest business partners.
Thirty inmates at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs now restore the classic automobiles in his collection. The 350 vehicles range in value from $70,000 to $12 million.
''We're not just rehabilitating the workers. We're giving them pride in workmanship. When they get out, they'll have a skill and a future.''
Clyne says he employs seven former inmates at his showroom and at his maintenance shop at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. ''My policy is 'if you worked for me on the inside, you can have a job when you get back to the outside.' ''
The car enthusiast says he soon hopes to have more inmates working for him on the inside. He's now in negotiations with prison officials to quadruple the 25,000 square feet of warehouse space he rents when a prison industries program is established at High Desert State Prison, the 5,000-inmate superprison in Indian Springs scheduled to open in September.
Clyne says his prison workforce has completed about 50 restorations and performed minor work on about 300 vehicles, including a convertible owned by John F. Kennedy and a bulletproof ''popemoblie'' used to shuttle John Paul II in public appearances. Prisoners are restoring a 1937 Cadillac that belonged to screen legend W.C. Fields and the Mercedes driven by Nazi field marshal Hermann Goering during World War II.
The shop is overseen and staffed by Clyne employee Dave Hoshaw. He says the prison's best employees don't necessarily have previous mechanical experience.
''A lot of these guys have never had jobs of any kind before,'' he said. ''I've got guys that say ... 'The only thing I know about cars is how to steal hubcaps off 'em.' ''