Slavery in Nevada? Yes, According to Assemblyman Jim Wheeler – and NDOC

by Bob Sloan

Over the past year I made several trips to Nevada, wrote numerous articles and interviewed dozens on the topic of Nevada’s prison industry working inmates without pay.

Under a contract between Alpine Steel, LLC and the Nevada Department of Corrections’ (NDOC) Silver State Industries (prison industry program) inmates were made to work for as much as four years without receiving any wages from Alpine.  During that time frame, many of Nevada’s unemployed steel workers were denied jobs due to the use of inmates to perform Alpine’s steel fabrication production.  Other businesses were harmed by this contract as they could not compete against a competitor with little or no labor costs when bidding on projects.

Late last year the Board of Prison Commissioners ordered the closure of the prison industry operation run by the NDOC and Alpine Steel.  At the time of the closure, Alpine’s owner, Randall Bulloch, acknowledged he had failed to pay the prisoner’s wages and agreed to pay $78,000 in back wages owed to prisoners by November 2012 .  Alpine still owes the state nearly a half million dollars in unpaid leases, utilities and wages for NDOC Supervisory personnel after agreeing to repay the state and defaulting on that agreement as well last June.  Alpine eventually agreed to voluntarily surrender its contractor’s license to the state and steps are being taken to attempt to recover the huge debt still owed to Nevada taxpayers.

Throughout I believe I accurately described the act of forcing state prisoners to work for a for-profit company without pay as “Slave Labor.”  Though this story has blossomed into one reported nationally and internationally, most have concentrated upon the issue of a lack of proper state oversight, the NDOC using tax dollars to subsidize a private business and misuse of state tax dollars by the prison industry division.

Most of the media totally ignored the fact that the employees actually performing hours of work under the contract between the state and Alpine, were not compensated for their labor by the company.  Though this and other important clauses were in the actual contract, Alpine was allowed to default without enforcement by the NDOC Director or Deputy Director.  Without the complaints and objections voiced by organized labor and business owners, this arrangement would be continuing with state prisoners being deliberately exploited for their labor.

Though NDOC officials have a duty to provide “Care, Custody and Control” of those incarcerated within Nevada’s prison system, administrators failed to protect Alpine’s inmate workers from exploitation of their labor.  Agency officials in fact condoned such acts by their refusal to enforce the contract provisions requiring  inmates to be paid “prevailing wages” by Alpine.  In effect the NDOC was acting as a labor contractor for private companies, providing a captive labor force for a handful of select businesses.  A captive workforce without an ability to voice complaints, quit or refuse to work when not paid.  Prisoners also have no say in the wage scale, work conditions or safety requirements in their workplace.

Many thought this to be simply a case involving a lack of oversight or enforcement by a state agency and its administration.  However when this story broke and the dust settled, the legislature passed new laws strengthening the state’s statutes involving prison industries and the use of inmate labor. Governor Sandoval signed the legislation into law, effective July 1, 2012.

While this new law protects other businesses and organized labor in Nevada, it does nothing to ensure prisoners are compensated for their labor when employed by private companies.  With the Alpine contract that company was required to pay prevailing wages to the inmate workers.  Instead they were paid minimum wage or less – and for years received no wages at all – and used in place of Nevada’s unemployed private sector workers.

wheelerWhen the actual vote was taken on this new law by the Nevada Assembly, there were only three dissenting votes against it.  One of those voting in opposition to SB 478 was Nevada Assemblyman, Jim Wheeler (R-Gardnerville).  It appeared Wheeler was content with the status quo of allowing the NDOC to work prisoners under contract to private companies without paying them required wages.  In essence he would sanction continuing such slave labor…

More recently Assemblyman Wheeler has come under fire for voicing similar sentiments on common slavery in Nevada, saying, “I’d Bring Back Slavery If Constituents Wanted…”  Since a YouTube video of Wheeler speaking at a Republican gathering and making that statement surfaced, Nevada Democrats, Governor Sandoval and others have denounced Wheeler, with some properly calling for his resignation.

Wheeler’s “constituents” however are backing him.  The Douglas County, Nevada Republican Central Committee issued a “Resolution Supporting Nevada Assemblyman Jim Wheeler“, in which they proclaim:

WHEREAS, Assemblyman Jim Wheeler has come under attack by forces employing unethical pressure in an attempt to manipulate Nevada’s Legislature, diluting the voice of The People; and

WHEREAS, Assemblyman Jim Wheeler has honored the trust placed in him by his constituents by keeping faith with The Nevada Republican Party Platform and honoring his oath of office; and

WHEREAS, The People of Douglas County, under the Nevada Constitution, firmly assert our exclusive rights to select our representatives to be our voice and advocate for our rights and interests; and

WHEREAS, The continued intentional misrepresentation of statements and positions of our elected representatives, as well as exertion of unwarranted pressure to resign, violate the constitutional rights of The People of Douglas County to choose our representatives, and must end now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Douglas County Republican Central Committee offers its strongest, unqualified support to Assemblyman Jim Wheeler for the leadership example he displays in representing The People of the Great State of Nevada; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the Douglas County Republican Central Committee gives notice to all that The People of Douglas County choose their representatives, and that no longer will we ignore the corporate, media, and other interests that seek to undermine the will of The People by unethically twisting the message of our elected officials; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the Chairman of the Douglas County Republican Central Committee will ensure that this resolution is transmitted to Nevada Assembly Republican Caucus.

Adopted this 1st day of November, 2013 by the Douglas County Republican Central Committee Executive Board.

Obviously this Republican “Committee” supports Wheeler – and apparently takes no umbrage that he would agree to introduce legislation allowing out-and-out slavery if that is what Republican’s of Douglas County determined was appropriate.

As with other politicians over the years who have uttered reprehensible statements, Wheeler has tried hard to put a spin on the facts of his utterance and his District 39 Committee is attempting to assist in that by accusing the “corporate media” of undermining the “will of The People” and twisting Wheeler’s words.

What Wheeler and the Douglas County Republican’s don’t get is that the Assemblyman’s excuse that he was just trying to exhibit that he would do whatever his constituents wanted, demonstrates he would be amenable to mob rule.  That is precisely what would happen if a lawmaker’s constituents insisted he/she introduce legislation wanted by them over objections or concerns of others.  An elected lawmakers must weigh all the facts, look at issues logically and make legislative decisions based upon all factors – not simply the will or whim of his constituents.  Voters in one small area may support one issue completely, while the remainder of the state opposes it.  Attempting to apply the will of a small minority upon the majority would be attempting to legislate by mob rule.

So Nevada – one of the last states to join the Union and a state that never involved itself in slavery – finds itself in the headlight of the “racist” topic that has been on our national radar since 2008.  While political factions and groups in other states have argued over whether voter ID laws sought by predominantly GOP controlled states is racist, denying votes to minorities, Nevada remained absent in that conversation.  Maybe Nevada Republicans now seek to join their voice to those of others on an issue such as slavery, weighing in on that topic – right or wrong.

In 21st century America, the concept of and very term “slavery” should be extinct, not being raised for the first time in Nevada.  Hopefully the NDOC will stop using prisoners as a private slave labor workforce for select businesses and companies – and legislators such as Jim Wheeler will stop making such inflammatory statements in the future.

In today’s political arena a lawmaker sitting with fellow legislators of all races who utters a statement such as Wheeler did, must make fellow Assemblymen/women uncomfortable – especially African-Americans and Hispanics.  Perhaps he should resign his post and let Douglas County select someone else to represent them in the Assembly…someone less inclined to inflame other members of the Assembly and voters from outside Douglas County.