CANON CITY, Colo. — Rick Fitzpatrick was mortified when a cable TV producer proposed to make a reality show starring prison inmates in the custom motorcycle program at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.
The last thing the inmates laboring in a program intended to teach good work habits and viable job skills needed was to face off against prisoners from Nevada in a sort of "American Chopper" meets "American Gladiators" showdown.
"It would be our death sentence," said Fitzpatrick, machine shop supervisor, who created "Old Max Choppers" to teach inmates how to build a motorcycle with parts fabricated at the prison.
This is a serious program, run in a long sliver of a shop behind the prison license-plate factory.
Fitzpatrick had men who needed to focus on turning their lives around by learning new skills and work habits, without the drama of possibly becoming cable TV celebrities — like Paul Jr. and Paul Sr. on "American Chopper."
"I'm not here to compete with the street. I don't care about fame. I want to make a nice product," Fitzpatrick said. "Word of mouth goes a long way."
The cable show never materialized, but this week the men of Old Max Choppers will deliver a $24,000 custom bike to their first customer. Called "Niteshift," the sleek black chopper is signed by the inmate designers and emblazoned with the program logo — a view of a guard tower, a skull and "Old Max Choppers" written over it. And like the inmates who made it, Niteshift has its own prison ID number — 0006.
Old Max Choppers originated from an offhanded joke.
David P. Johnson, who is weeks away from completing an 18-year prison term for burglary, said he joked to Fitzpatrick one day that they ought to start a program building choppers. A lot of people would love a bike fabricated in prison, he said.
Fitzpatrick took it seriously.
He liked the idea that inmates could learn something that could help them get a job in a garage when released from prison.
"That's what I did before I came to prison," Johnson said, referring to building motorcycles at a Grand Junction garage. "It had been 13 years since I'd picked up a wrench, but it's like riding a bicycle. You never forget."
Johnson had a hand in developing the program and even helped pick the first inmates in the program. He chose men who had welding and car-repair skills. The inmates also must have — and maintain — a good behavior record.
"I wanted to get in as soon as they added the program," said Ken Blau, 37, of Aurora, who is serving 15 years for burglary.
Blau said the program gives him a strong incentive not to get into trouble. If he gets written up, he can't work on the motorcycles.
But the biggest advantage is learning how to build a motorcycle.
The group is working on its sixth motorcycle. The inmates fabricate gas tanks and exhaust pipes. They recently took a flat piece of metal and fashioned a throttle linkage in a tribal design using machines in the shop. They designed the piece using computer software.
"We give it a DOC feel," Fitzpatrick said.
The inmates must order some key parts — engines, tires — from distributor Demon's Cycle. They build other parts, and assemble, wire and paint the bikes.
It takes about three months to build one motorcycle. The inmates are paid $1.20 a day and can work only five to six hours a day on the bikes.
Greg Ortiz, 32, of Aurora who, is serving a 20-year prison term for aggravated robbery, said he loved to build drag racing cars when he was younger. He said he is hoping to learn as much as he can in prison so that he can find a job and be a good father to his three children when he is released.
"I made a couple of mistakes. I'm trying to correct them," Ortiz said. "This program has definitely helped me stay out of trouble."
When he is released from prison in less than two months, Johnson said he'll have a job waiting for him at a shop in Montrose.
Fewer than 10 inmates participate in this program, three or four in the direct assembly of the bikes. The others manufacture parts.
Fitzpatrick and his supervisor, Frank Graeber, would like to increase the number of participants, but to do so, they need to sell more motorcycles. Like every other job-training programs run by the prison — including mustang and dog training, fish and egg farming, and a dairy — it must be financially self-sufficient.
"This is thinking outside the box," Graeber said.