Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2015

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Lawmakers lambaste money-losing prison industries program

Legislators lambasted the state’s prison industry program Friday.

They bemoaned the financial losses the program has incurred during the past few years and further decried the possibility that prisoners could be unduly competing with the private sector for scarce jobs.

“It appears that at some point the reserves are going to run out, but in the meantime, it’s a loss-loss across the state,” Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said at a legislative committee meeting, noting that the state would lose money and the private sector could lose jobs.

The prison industries program uses voluntary prison labor to run various shops with some proceeds from sales paying for restitution and room and board for prisoners; the prisoners receive training and skills they can later use to find a job when they are no longer incarcerated.

Department of Corrections chief Greg Cox conceded that the program has been a money loser during recent years but still defended the merits of the Silver State Industries program.

“We have been able to say historically this is helping us operate our facilities, it’s a good management tool, and it provides vocational training,” he told legislators. “The cold hard facts are now that we have to aggressively look at what industries are not turning a profit.”

The prison industries’ furniture and metal shop, auto and upholstery shop, and drapery shop have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars during the past few years.

Others, like the mattress, print and garment shops have turned small profits. But those surpluses aren’t enough to offset losses in the other shops, and the department has been drawing down reserves as a result.

“This is a clear track into the dirt, and without substantial retooling, it’ll be in the hole,” Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said.

Bobzien and Assemblyman Michael Sprinkle, D-Sparks, tried to wrangle an answer from Cox about which programs would be cut and what the department would do to get its industry program on a sustainable track.

Cox said he’s “very pessimistic” about future revenues and that “when resources go, of course programs will go.”

He cited the auto shop, the biggest money loser, as one program that could be under the chopping block.

Cox faced further criticism for the prison industry’s public-private partnership with Alpine Steel, which owes the state about $400,000.

The company also got a below-market rate lease to operate within High Desert State Prison, which Bobzien called an unfair subsidy.

The challenge of convincing a business to work within a prison environment necessitated the need for a cheap rate, said Nevada Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Brian Connett.

Danny Thompson, of the AFL-CIO, also protested Alpine Steel’s use of cheap prison labor.

“They’re displacing people who are out of work with prisoners,” he said. “There’s no way you can compete. ... I have 300 out-of-work ironworkers who are not criminals.”

He said Alpine Steel produced steel girders for a construction project at the North Fifth Street Bridge in North Las Vegas.

Calling into question the quality of prison labor, he said the potential lack of certification and training for prison laborers could lead to unsafe construction on a public road over Interstate 15.

The company’s owner, Randy Bulloch, testified to legislators that his company did no work on girders for that project and that the prison laborers have required certifications.

Cox also said Alpine Steel is on a payback program and is no longer operating within the state’s prison system, although that could change in the future.

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