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June 22, 2024 8:01 am

Local News

Low Wages for Prison Inmates ‘Remnants of Slavery,’ says Lawmaker Seeking to Outlaw Practice

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by April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current

Nevada inmates may be working for as little as 35 cents an hour and having significant portions of their checks withheld by the Nevada Department of Corrections.

State Sen. Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, wants to change that.

She has introduced Senate Bill 187, which would require the Nevada Department of Corrections to pay inmates an hourly wage equivalent to the state minimum wage (currently $9.50 or $10.50 an hour). According to a breakdown of salary ranges provided by NDOC, inmate pay can be as low as 35 cents per hour, depending on the position.

Neal called the practice “remnants of slavery.”

She continued, “Whether we want to ignore it or not. Whether government sanctioned or leasing to private entities, it is still convict leasing.”

Convict leasing refers to the post-Civil War practice of states contracting out their inmates to private entities — such as plantations and railroads in the South — that would house them and force them to work in inhumane conditions. It was seen as allowable because the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment…”

Prison inmates today work in various arenas. Some are assigned positions within the prison, such as working in the kitchen. Others work under Silver State Industries, a specific NDOC department that contracts out labor for outside businesses. Still others work as part of programs run in conjunction with other state agencies, like those who fight fires with the Department of Forestry or do manual labor like fixing fences for the State Public Works Division.

“The question that is being debated is whether there is a right to earn a decent amount, a living wage for the (time) you may be in prison,” said Neal.

She acknowledged that some people believe prisoners have no right to earn anything, but she argued it’s not just inmates who would  benefit from the policy change. The state, too, would be better served by helping inmates build up resources that can help keep them from relying on social services like SNAP, TANF and Medicaid upon release.

“What would we like them to exit with?” she asked rhetorically. “Enough cash in their pocket to pay rent? I say yes.”

Many inmates leave prison with little to no money to their name. Some are even in debt, often from medical copays from treatments and services received while incarcerated, and the state contracts with a collection agency to seek repayment.

One formerly incarcerated man, who identified himself as Eric Garcia when calling into the hearing in support of the bill, said he worked in the prison kitchen and as a forestry firefighter during his six years in the carceral system.

“How we are exploited and made to feel at the end of the day is not okay,” he said, adding that the bill might make it so others don’t feel like he did upon release in 2012. “It felt like nobody was there at time of release. I had $130 … That’s what I had to go home with. No support. No system in play to help me.”

SB 187 includes provisions designed to stop NDOC from simply recouping additional money earned by inmates through new charges or fees, though Neal acknowledged NDOC’s history of not fully implementing laws passed by the Legislature. One provision included in the bill is capping prison commissary markups at 20%, which would be a significant drop from the 40% markup rate found during a government audit of NDOC.

“The idea of the Offenders Release Fund is to protect it from (NDOC),” added Neal, referring to a special type of banking account that would be setup for working inmates.

Democratic state Sen. Rochelle Nguyen pointed out the incongruity of charging room and board to inmates who opt to work while incarcerated while not charging those who don’t work. Currently, inmates who work have 24% of their paycheck withheld for room and board. Another 5% of their paycheck is withheld to support capital improvements within the industrial program.

Neal’s presentation was well received by the committee Wednesday.

“You have more support than you realize,” said Republican state Sen. Ira Hansen.

Hansen said he is against private companies using prisoners to make products to be sold in the open market against competitors that don’t have the advantage of cheap prison labor.

NDOC is officially neutral on the bill but appeared at the hearing to answer questions. Hansen and other legislators pressed the representatives for details on work done through Silver State Industries.

Silver State Industries is required to be self-sustaining, emphasized Bill Quenga, who heads the program at NDOC. Approximately 560 inmates currently participate and do so voluntarily.

Some of the low-wage positions are part of training programs NDOC runs in partnership with colleges like Western Nevada College. Inmates start out with little or no skills and progress with the help of instructors to more skills and higher earnings.

Quenga said some of the inmates who have gone through Silver State Industries now earn living wages using the skills they learned. He gave specific examples of jobs at an unnamed major clothing manufacturer in the Reno-Sparks area, as well as the Tesla battery factory.

One such graduate of the program testified in opposition to the bill, saying that during his decade of incarceration he worked his way up from an introductory sawyer to a carpenter to eventually helping with operations of the program. He said he didn’t believe the program could be self-sustaining if forced to comply with the provisions of the bill.

Discussion of the fiscal impact of the bill was minimal during the hearing, as Democratic state Sen. Melanie Schieble, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, established at the beginning of the meeting that lawmakers and other speakers should focus on the policy at hand rather than financial implications.

Neal first introduced a prison wage bill in the 2021 Legislative Session, where it died in its first committee. At that time, NDOC submitted a fiscal note saying the bill would impact them to the tune of $64 million over a biennium, and the Department of Forestry submitted a fiscal note saying it would impact them $32.9 million over a biennium.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.