By Bob Sloan
THE USE OF PRISON LABOR HAS BEEN increasing throughout the nation for the past fifteen-plus years. More and more factories are being built behind prison fences, with thousands of prisoner-made products sold to consumers annually – including apparel, processed foods, electronics, cabling, automotive and aircraft wiring, flooring, motorcycles, furniture, modular office systems … the list goes on.
Recently, a situation involving the use of prison labor in Nevada has drawn the attention of business owners and state officials alike after several steel companies discovered that one of their competitors had been using prison labor to cut costs and secure contracts.
The labor was provided by prisoners working in Silver State Industries – Nevada’s prison industry program – at the High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs. The prisoners were paid minimum wage while employees on the outside receive between $17 and $20 per hour for the same type of jobs.
With all the glitz and glimmer of Las Vegas, Nevada is still vulnerable to the current economic downturn and has an unemployment rate exceeding 10%. The discovery that prisoners were competing against local unemployed steel workers caused consternation among the local workforce. It also caught the attention of the state’s news media, which in turn attracted the attention of Nevada’s Board of State Prison Commissioners, which consists of Governor Brian Sandoval, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller.
The use of prison labor surfaced when Brian Connett, the chief executive of Silver State Industries, publicly announced the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) was proud to be part of the world-class 550-foot-tall “SkyVue Observation Wheel” project being built in Las Vegas. The NDOC is involved in the SkyVue project because the project’s steel contractor, Alpine Steel LLC, is using prison labor to fabricate components for what is destined to be a new “land-mark” on the Las Vegas skyline.