Silver State Industries keeps prison's work ethic high

The shops Bill Quenga manages at Silver State Industries look like any other upholstery, steel fabrication or finish carpentry shop. But the workers who toil under Quenga's watch aren't paid regular wages, and the location leaves much to be desired as well.

Silver State Industries is the workforce arm of the medium-security Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. Statewide, Silver State Industries employs between 800 to 900 inmates.

At NNCC, Industry Supervisor Quenga watches over about 80 working inmates, while Ranch Manager Tim Bryant oversees about 40: 15-20 work with horses; 3-5 work on composting; 4-7 work in the greenhouses; and about 20 run a sprawling farm complex. At the maximum security Ely State Prison, between 20-30 inmates work in the drapery manufacturing shop.

Quenga says maintaining a high worker count allows the more skilled inmates to train others as they get closer to the ends of their sentences.

One benefit of the program, which is more than 20 years old, helps offset the cost of housing inmates, says Brian Connett, prison industries deputy director.

"What we try to do is reduce the cost of state government," Connett says. "One of the ways we do that is by working inmates. It is an inmate management tool for the institution. When you have an inmate that is working, you have one that is occupied. They aren't getting into trouble or milling around the yard with nothing to do or just pushing rocks.

"A tired inmate at the end of the day is much more manageable than one who has just been kicking rocks all day."

Inmates who work at the institution, such as cooks or janitors, don't get paid; however, inmates working for a prison industry, such as furniture or mattress making or steel fabrication, earn between 20 cents an hour to as much as $10 an hour. They also received good-time credits that reduce their sentences.

"It depends on what it is they are working on and who the customer is that determines their pay," says Connett, who notes that the majority of inmates earn minimum wage.

Of the money earned, 24.5 percent of the gross wage goes to back to the Department of Corrections for a room and board deduction. Five percent goes to the Victims of Crime fund, and another five percent goes to a capital improvements fund for prison industries.

The rest is placed on inmates' records so they can purchase goods at the prison commissary, pay off restitution or send it to family. An additional 10 percent is placed in a savings account, up to $200.

"It doesn't come near what is costs (to house an inmate) but it certainly makes a dent to that institution," Connett says. "It also provides an inmate with the ability to get some sort of pride that says, 'I am able to send something home to my children.' That means a lot to people who are incarcerated."

John Woodburn, industrial programs marketing manager, adds: "They take great pride in what they do and what they accomplish, and it keeps the men supporting their families. That's very important. Work is a very rehabilitative tool."

Most of the work performed by Silver State Industries is for the "tax-entity market," such as state agencies, cities, counties, school boards, and sheriffs' departments. In some cases, private industries can even open an industry within the prison using inmate labor. A good example is Full Circle Compost, which operates a large composting facility on the south end of the prison grounds.

"By working them we attempt to provide them with a skill," Connett says. "When an inmate is released from prison, hopefully he or she can take that skill and use it to gain employment.

"Even if that skill is working at menial tasks, we are giving them the work ethic," he adds. "You have to show up to work every day. You are going to have to learn to work within a team. You are going to have to learn to take constructive criticism from a supervisor. These are things a lot of these guys have never been exposed to."

Inmates can only work for Silver State Industries if they have been well-behaved for six months to a year. Inmates work between six-and-a-half to eight hours a day.

Silver State Industries procures materials locally from state contracts or from private-sector companies through industry contacts. Statewide, overall revenues run about $5 million a year. Connett says Silver State Industries does not try to dominate any market segment so as not to defer monies or jobs from the private sector.

Adds Woodburn: "We don't want to be perceived as stealing jobs. We partner with local business. We don't try to be a direct competitor."

Inmates typically work with sharp objects on a daily basis, but tools are accounted for via "shadow systems" that outline tools on a pegboard. If one is missing no one leaves. Trouble rarely, if ever, occurs.

"These inmates want these jobs," Connett says. "These are coveted positions in this prison. They are not going to jeopardize their positions."


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