Nevada officials consider inmate labor’s effect on private sector

Cathleen Allison / Associated Press

Cathleen Allison / Associated Press

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Gov. Brian Sandoval’s administration needs to ensure prison-labor programs do not inhibit private-sector employment, a former Nevada governor said Tuesday.

Richard Bryan, who also has been a U.S. senator, told the Board of Prison Commissioners that the Silver State Industry system needs work. A first step in improving the program could be requiring consultation with private-sector interests on contracts with prison industries, Bryan said.

“It ensures prisoners are paid comparable to what they would be worth in the private sector,” he said. Without such accountability, prison industries are able to underbid private contractors due to low labor costs, he added.

The program employs inmates and uses a portion of the proceeds to offset some of the costs of incarceration. Proponents call it a valuable, skill-building tool that will help prisoners when they are released from prison, but critics say it comes at a cost to the private sector.

Companies or individuals can contract with the prisons to have inmates perform work in a variety of fields, including woodworking, metal fabrication, and making garments, draperies and mattresses. Two of the more unusual types of work are a horse-training division that trains wild horses for adoption, and a motorcycle-manufacturing unit that will craft choppers with actual prison bars.

Several witnesses at Tuesday’s meeting complained of lost work due to prison labor’s cheaper costs.

“I understand prisoners who are working are easier to manage than those that are not, but the kind of work being done displaced taxpaying citizens,” said Danny Thompson of the Nevada AFL-CIO.

Sandoval, who is chairman of the prison board, told The Associated Press after the meeting that the complaints of lost work stem from an isolated incident when a contract was enacted without clearance from the prison board.

“Under no circumstances would I want prison labor displacing private-sector jobs,” Sandoval said. “I don’t want a situation where private contractors are underbidding by subsidizing with prison labor.”

Other members of the prison board are the attorney general and secretary of state.

The benefits of the prison-industries system go far beyond the financial proceeds of the labor, and the intent is not to compete with private contractors, said Brian Connett, the deputy director of prison industries.

“We’re not in the business of displacing Nevada workers,” he said. “This better prepares them for life upon release, and 95 percent will be released eventually and become co-workers and neighbors. This gives them training to become successful citizens.”

He added that employment is often the most difficult test for prisoners after they are set free, and the recidivism rate has dropped because of involvement with prison industries.

The board took no action Tuesday.


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