PIECP mandatory requirements

Nevada Continues to Struggle With Prison Industry Law

Nevada Continues to Struggle With Prison Industry Law

By Bob Sloan

The Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners (BPC) made up of Governor Brian Sandoval, Attorney General Catherine Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller, met early on the morning of October 15th to discuss key issues involving the state’s Department of Corrections.  On the agenda was a “hot topic” involving the prison industrial program’s perceived unfair competition with private businesses.  Since last year controversy has surrounded the use of prisoners to compete with Nevada’s unemployed and against companies producing the same products in the private sector.

The NDOC Director presented proposed new administrative regulations for approval.  These “AR’s” covered a gamut of issues from installing trailer/RV spots at remote facilities to use of restraints on pregnant prisoners during labor, housing new hires who cannot find housing locally, and compliance with federal standards on prison rape elimination.  Not much new was learned from attending this Board meeting with one exception – withholding proposed AR 854, “Prison Industrial Program.”  Director Cox advised the Board that he was not presenting this one AR until he could confer with former Senator, Richard Bryan on language contained in the proposed regulation.

This proposed AR was in response to an ongoing controversy involving a partnership contract between Alpine Steel, LLC and the NDOC’s prison industries division.  Nearly a year ago steel companies discovered a competing business, Alpine Steel, LLC had partnered with the NDOC prison industries since 2006 to use inmate labor to manufacture or fabricate structural steel components.  This partnership included low cost facility leases, low paid inmate workers and utilities provided at reduced state rates.  In effect the NDOC was knowingly subsidizing the operations of one private company with tax dollars which provided a distinct advantage for Alpine over competing businesses.

During the investigations that followed, it was learned Alpine had been in serious default for years.  It had not been paying wages to inmates or NDOC staffers, lease and utility payments were in arrears and the state was owed nearly $500,000.  Alpine eventually agreed to a forbearance agreement to repay the money owed to the state and purportedly paid the back wages due to inmate workers.

In June of this year Alpine defaulted on that agreement and the state was awarded a summary judgment of $428,208 plus 1 ½% interest on the debt.  Alpine also surrendered its contractor’s license and is no longer bidding on projects (though their website is still advertising and offering services).  These developments came after new legislation (SB 478) was proposed to strengthen current laws on prison industry operations, providing more oversight and transparency involving prison industry operations.  Additionally wording was inserted to protect competing businesses from being disadvantaged from the use of prisoners as a cheap labor force.

Senator Bryan became involved early on, suggesting changes to the state’s law(s) pertaining to oversight, control and operation of the prison industry program that would eliminate any unfair competition with private manufacturers from the use of prison labor and protect private sector workers.  At last month’s BPC meeting Director Cox stated Senator Bryan had reservations or concerns about one section of the AR, feeling it would not provide the proper protection(s) to private sector companies if/when new prison industry projects were implemented.  Director Cox advised the Board he planned on conferring with Senator Bryan to rewrite AR 854 and present a modified version of it to the Board at the next BPC meeting on December 10th.

Cox advised the objection voiced by Senator Bryan and others was the ability of the Deputy Director to both enact and vet new programs by determining the impact – if any – upon businesses and labor.  Cox indicated Senator Bryan wanted that provision modified.

Senator Bryan is correct in objecting to or having reservations about that proviso.  These precise duties were the Deputy Director’s responsibility previously and as demonstrated by the Alpine situation, he handled them poorly.

 

TRANSPARENCY

Prior to the scheduled meeting a copy of the actual NDOC/Alpine Steel contract was received and researched.  In reviewing the contract and form submitted to the Nevada Board of Examiners several critical issues were immediately noticed.

Deputy Director Connett renewed Alpine Steel’s prison industry contract in 2011.  On the prepared form provided to the Board of Examiners, Connett informed Alpine was chosen because it had been contracting with the NDOC since 2006 with “satisfactory performance.”

There was no mention the company was in default on the old contract as the new one was submitted for official approval.  The form and contract itself were prepared and submitted by Connett – who obviously knew Alpine was in default and went forward without disclosing that fact to the Board of Examiners, the Legislature or the BPC:

 

satisfactory performance

Board of Examiners Contract Form on Alpine Contract 5/11

 

Additionally, Connett certified that the “contracting agency” (the NDOC) would not be providing worker space to Alpine, no Nevada State employees would be assisting Alpine under the contract and the state would not incur an “employment liability” if Alpine’s contract was terminated for failure to “perform.  Each provision initialed by Bulloch:”

Alpine NDOC Contract excerpt

from 2011 Alpine/NDOC Contract

In December 2012 the BPC requested the NDOC to stop all Alpine Steel operations at the High Desert State Prison and take steps to recover the outstanding money owed to the state.  On December 22nd, 2012 Director Cox officially closed the Alpine Steel fabrication operation.

Following the closure and during negotiations to recover the debt owed by Alpine it was learned that more than $438,000 was owed.  This sum included; $143,224 for past due wages to NDOC officers and another $115,270 in “rent” on agency space for workers:

forbearance excerpt 1

From Alpine Forbearance Agreement

Another important provision contained in the contract was the wage scale to be paid to the inmate workers.  The contract provided inmates were to be paid “the prevailing wage rate for the type of work performed”:

Alpine - prevailing wage requirement

2011 Alpine Contract Section 8.6

As I reported in February, Nevada’s Occupational Employment Statistics set the prevailing (median) wage for structural steel fabricators at $16.91 per hour worked:

NV OES struct steel fab

2012 NV OES Website

Yet the NDOC allowed Alpine to pay prisoners the minimum hourly wage for their labor.  From 2006 through 2012 when the operation was closed down, inmates were paid as little as $5.25 per hour to a high of $8.25 per hour regardless of knowledge, time on the job or experience.  Paying inmates less than ½ the scale paid to workers in the private sector allowed Alpine to underbid competing private sector companies for labor projections on projects.  Obviously this important contract provision was ignored by Alpine and the NDOC.

Just as obviously state employees were “assisting” Alpine in the performance of its duties by supervising the inmate workers in a facility space rented to Alpine by the NDOC – and Alpine was delinquent in paying wages to those officers.

Whether considered an “employment liability” or not, the fact that Alpine defaulted on paying officers more than $100,000 in wages meant the state had to pay those wages with tax dollars – and that is a liability.

Realizing how deeply indebted Alpine was, Legislators, Assemblymen, Interim Finance Committee on Industrial Programs members and a BPC member all voiced concerns at the amount owed by Alpine and worried about collecting the huge debt.  Official requests were made to Connett and Director Cox to secure a personal guarantee on the debt from Alpine’s owner, Randall Bulloch.

In September and October 2012 IFC members: AllenPuliz (manufacturing representative), Assemblyman John Ellison, Mike Magnani (labor representative) and Mr. Aguilera (business representative) all requested Alpine Steel’s owner provide a personal guarantee on payment of the debt owed by his company.  This request was made directly to Mr. Bulloch at the October 2012 meeting:

“Mr. Puliz asked if the pay back proposal had a personal guarantee or a guarantee from Alpine Steel. Mr. Bulloch said it was strictly a guarantee from Alpine Steel. Mr. Puliz stated he was a businessman and constantly provided personal guarantees. He asked if Mr. Bulloch was willing to do a personal guarantee on the debt owed to the state.”

Bulloch’s response was:

“…(He) was not prepared to provide a personal guarantee, but he would have further conversations with Mr. Connett to discuss other options.”

At the October meeting, Mr. Nicolas C. Anthony, Senior Principal Deputy Legislative Counsel, Legal Division, summarized the statutory authority and duties of the Committee on Industrial Programs.  In his summary the Deputy Legislative Counsel informed the Committee that their duties were “advisory” only:

”The Committee contains both members of the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch due to separation of powers. Since the Committee only functions as advisory in nature, any recommendations made by the Committee have no official capacity…

“…Final programs and contracts, including leases of space, were established and entered into by the director of the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) pursuant to statute, which was a function of the Executive Branch and not a function of this Committee…

“…Mr. Anthony indicated the recommendations of the Committee were purely advisory in nature. Mr. Anthony said its advisory recommendations can be submitted to the IFC, full legislature, or director of NDOC. If a recommendation was provided to the director of NDOC, it must pertain to new programs or the review of existing programs’ profitability within the first three years.”

In other words, the IFC Committee can only make “recommendations” to the Director or Deputy Director on new programs or review existing ones – and their recommendations carry absolutely no weight.  Neither Cox nor Connett would be bound to implement the recommendations of the Committee tasked with direct oversight of prison industry operations.

Legislative and private sector members charged with review of prison industry programs were prohibited from forcing the NDOC to seek a personal guarantee on the debt owed the state or formally request Bulloch post a personal guarantee.  The hands of the Committee were effectively tied.

With the NDOC circumventing the requirement that all industry projects be submitted to and approved by the BPC and ignoring the recommendations of the IFC, the agency was operating independently without any genuine oversight.  It appears the 2011 contract with Alpine, though provided to the Board of Examiners for approval, was never submitted to the BPC as required and the Board had no knowledge of the contract or actual operations of Alpine.

In January Connett ignored all calls for a personal guarantee from Bulloch.  Instead, he negotiated a forbearance agreement that allowed Bulloch to shirk personal responsibility for Alpine’s debt to the state.  The agreement also did not include; interest on that debt, a fine or penalty for defaulting on the contract and allowed Alpine to repay the past due money in small monthly payments over several years – and let Alpine’s owner off the hook for any debt owed.

On January 11th, 2013 Attorney General Masto’s office agreed to this proposed deal and Bulloch’s personal property and wealth were thus “officially” protected in case of any default in the future.

At the BPC meeting nine months later, the Governor and other members learned Alpine Steel had very quietly run up a tab of more than $450,000 with the NDOC’s apparent acquiescence and then defaulted on the negotiated and personally lenient repayment plan.  The Board questioned NDOC Director Greg Cox and Connett about the Alpine debt and both were forced to admit Alpine was indeed in full default.  When the Governor asked point blank the total amount owed, Connett stammered and said that though he did not have the “exact figure” he thought the amount was in the “neighborhood of $468,000.”

To anyone following this story it was readily apparent that default was more than likely in the case of Alpine Steel.  Already facing substantial IRS tax liens, litigation from creditors and outstanding state tax liens, Alpine was in dire financial straits when Connett negotiated the forbearance agreement and the Attorney General approved it.

When I forwarded questions to the NDOC and the AG’s office as to who/which agency negotiated the forbearance agreement without pursuing a personal guarantee from Bulloch, both responded the information was “attorney client privileged” refusing to answer.

On the important question as to actual ownership of the Alpine equipment seized and being held by the NDOC as collateral, both NDOC and the AG’s office again cited attorney client privilege and refused to provide any information on value or legal ownership (a third party now claims ownership of some of that property).  On the question of sale or disposal of that equipment to pay down the judgment amount, both again cited attorney client privileged information, refusing to answer.

In June of 2012 the prison industry financial records showed Alpine was $347,778.11 in arrears on payments to the NDOC.  Yet with at least this amount owing, Connett still did not call the contract in default or cease operations.  Instead he kept the operation open – over the recommendations of the IFC – and over the next six months Alpine ran up another $67,131.78 in bad debt.

In the end the taxpayers are out hundreds of thousands of dollars and any effort by lawmakers exercising oversight to attempt to fully inform and protect the taxpayers by guaranteeing the debt would be paid, were ignored by state actors at the highest levels of the NDOC – and ultimately, the Attorney General’s office.

Even when all the owed money and failures to enforce contract terms were made public, both of those agencies cite attorney client privilege in an effort to deny taxpayers any information on which agency or individual bears responsibility for negotiating away their rights or interest in recovering the money lost by the prison/Alpine operation.

Connett bears responsibility for forcing Alpine’s inmate workers to perform duties for Alpine without receiving wages – slave labor?  Bulloch and Connett admitted to the IFC that Alpine owed prisoners $78,000 in unpaid wages and only after the story became public did Bulloch finally pay those wages in September and October 2012.

If the NDOC paid the owed inmate wages out of department funds, they did so without legal authorization and in direct violation of the terms of the Alpine contract.  In either case though the inmates finally got paid, the balance of nearly half a million dollars is now the responsibility of taxpayers to reimburse.

This is why the legislature proposed, passed – and Governor Sandoval signed – SB 478 to strengthen oversight, require posting of security, bond or personal guarantees on proposed new prison industry projects; to protect inmate workers, local businesses, workers and taxpayers equally.  It is also why Senator Bryan had reservations concerning the wording of proposed AR 854.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

After the last BPC meeting concluded, several questions remained unanswered.  One is why Deputy Director Connett continued to allow Alpine steel to default from 2009 through 2012 without taking any steps to cure the default or stop the operation as allowed under the agreenent?  The contract has specific actions to be taken within 30 days of any default yet Connett failed to initiate any of the provisions called for in the contract when a default was triggered.  This lack of action led to more and more debt piling up that ultimately has cost the state.

Some have conjectured that possibly there was some form of corruption involved in the relationship between Bulloch and Connett, suggesting a possible “quid pro quo” situation.  There is no evidence to support this theory, no document or verifiable statements made by third parties have surfaced to sustain such a speculation so it remains just that – an unfounded speculation.

However, what isn’t speculation is the fact that Nevada’s prison industry program has been operating like an uncontrolled private venture with company executives avoiding any accountability or responsibility to shareholders for their actions.  Only in this case the “venture” had access to unlimited funding with tax dollars and the “shareholders” are Nevada taxpayers.

One of the worst elements of this default was the forcing of prisoners to work for a private company without wages – especially at a scale below that required under the contract.  Cox and Connett not only have a duty to the taxpayers to not waste the department’s appropriations, it also has a duty to not exploit prisoners in their care, custody and control.  Inmates have no choice in their work assignments and cannot simply walk off the job when not paid.  These NDOC officials made a conscious decision to force prisoners to work for this private manufacturer without pay which financially benefited Alpine substantially

None of the concerns voiced by the legislature, administration and media address the fact that prisoners in state custody were made to work for a private company without pay.  This wasn’t working in the laundry; kitchen or cleaning up the prison…this work was for a private company that profited from that forced labor.

Since Connett’s appointment as Deputy Director, several key and important changes began to take effect.  One was an immediate increase in debt owed to the NDOC.  Contractors such as Alpine began falling behind on lease and other payments indicating a failure by the NDOC to enforce contract provisions and cure such defaults.  The industry’s accounts receivable (outstanding or uncollected accounts due) rose sharply to nearly $1 million dollars in uncollected income and in 2010 Connett turned over $800,000 of that outstanding debt to a collection agency to attempt to recover.

When Connett assumed control of the prison industry it had a “contingency fund” of $1.5 million dollars to work with.  Since 2008 this fund has been used to the extent it now contains only $500,000.

With the Nevada prison industry oversight authority limited to nothing more than an “advisory” body, the NDOC continuously ignored the Committee’s recommendations and operated as it wished.  The agency began to successfully bypass the legislative requirement that the BPC review all new or proposed industries, further hiding industry operations.  This led to the NDOC operating the prison industry program without oversight, legislative controls or interference.

Contributing to this portrayal of the state’s faltering prison industry program is the real possibility that Deputy Director Connett’s duties to the people of Nevada and the NDOC have been compromised due to a concurrent position he holds with the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA).

The NCIA is a trade association that actively lobbies at the federal, state, and local levels for continued funding for the expansion and effective administration of prison industry programs and conversely, opposes legislation that would adversely impact correctional industries programs.[i]

Collectively this group represents the largest and most active advocacy in support of continued use (and expansion) of prisoner labor and maintaining inmate wages below the fair minimum wage – as shown in the below “Resolution” adopted by the NCIA in 2010:

NCIA Minimum Wage Resolution

From NCIA Library – Last Accessed 3/10

Compliance with this resolution is demonstrated by Connett’s establishing actual wages paid to Alpine’s inmate workers at or below the minimum wage, in direct violation to the terms of the NDOC contract’s prevailing wage provision.

Individual citizens, companies and others in opposition to prison labor used by private companies find themselves face to face with this large and influential group operating as a trade/lobby organization with more than forty state prison industry administrators sitting upon the NCIA Board.

Connett NCIA position

From NCIA website: http://www.nationalcia.org/

Connett is the current Chairman of the NCIA Board while also serving as Deputy Director of Silver State Industries and as such he has one foot in each camp.  As Chairman of the NCIA Connett has a duty to expand prison industry operations, keep companies partnered with each state prison industry operation and limit the wages paid to inmate workers.  It would be detrimental to the NCIA to have to disclose that in his own state Connett had to pay inmates a prevailing wage or had to close a prison industry.  This could be one reason Connett failed to act responsibly, refusing to take any curative actions when Alpine first began to default.

There may be other theories as to why Connett failed to enforce the terms of the Alpine contract and spent time and energy attending Committee meetings and legislative hearings in an attempt to keep the Alpine operation open – in spite of numerous calls to close it down and the growing debt to the state.  Unfortunately to date, no one has been able to secure any response on the “why” from Connett or Director Cox, who continue to cite attorney client privilege on all questions posed on this topic.  Though the media has posed those questions, the BPC, IFC and legislature has not.

Several requests for documents and information have been made to the NDOC and Director Cox in an attempt to gather information necessary to establish precisely the reason for Connett’s actions.  As this article goes to publication, there has been no response from the NDOC – other than citing attorney client privilege – from Director Cox or Deputy Director Connett (who is also the NDOC Public Information Officer).

NDOC public relations officer

As the Deputy Director, Public Information Officer and the Chairman of the NCIA, Connett has a vast amount of power and influence.  He is able to choose new industry programs, decide the material released to the public about proposed or existing programs…and he holds a key position in the private agency overseeing, determining and enforcing policies and standards involving all prison labor and industries in the U.S.

As the DD, Connett failed to enforce compliance to protect the agency and taxpayers when Alpine began to default and in the end he attempted to withhold public information about Alpine’s failures while publicly applauding  the use of prison labor to manufacture steel components for the SkyVue Observation Wheel.

Responses to questions sent to Director Cox come from Connett as the PIO.  Each official response to queries for this article has come via email without Connett’s name or signature affixed.

The BPC, IFC Committee, Board of Examiners and lawmakers rely upon data, compliance certifications and other information provided to them by the NDOC Deputy Director.  The DD has a duty to advise these Committees, Boards and lawmakers with full, factual information for those bodies to use when making critical decisions regarding prison industries; new projects, status of existing operations and contract compliance.  Connett has demonstrated he is willing to withhold critical information and facts from these official bodies when it benefits his operations.  Under his authority there has been little transparency in prison industry operations.

As shown, Connett simply has “too many dogs” in the hunt to remain the sole authority selecting new programs, or determining the impact upon private sector workers and businesses from his industry operations.  Those important determinations should be made by others with no personal involvement riding on the outcome.

Failing to provide full facts to Boards and Committees, or withholding important information that is significant when considering prison industry expansions is negligent and as demonstrated can result in a huge loss to the state and taxpayers.  It also can result in underpaid inmate workers being used to lower operating expenses by one company to the detriment of his/her competitors – even working them without pay for extended periods.

NCIA Bylaws require any company partnered with a prison industry using inmate labor to become a member of their organization.  This may explain DD Connett’s continued support of an NCIA member company by his attending numerous meetings and hearings where he urged administrators and lawmakers to continue to allow Alpine to operate once the company’s defaults became public.

Hopefully the language of AR 854 will contain sections allowing for a committee or board to make determinations as to the impact upon competing businesses and labor when new industries are proposed or considered.  Having those important tasks in the hands of the one individual – or agency – seeking to implement any new contract or anticipated new industry truly is a case of the “fox guarding the hen-house…”

To avoid any appearance of impropriety the NDOC should operate under joint authority of the BPC, IFC and legislature.  The prison industry has to operate within the parameters set by those state bodies without deviation and under tight oversight provisions.  Continuing to allow the NDOC and prison industries to operate without requiring adherence to recommendations made by responsible legislative and control authorities, makes another Alpine-styled situation a real possibility.

It is now generally known and accepted that the SkyVue wheel is a stalled project that may never be completed.  Bulloch’s claim that he had this contract sewn up and would pay back his outstanding debt to the state once the project started in earnest was a promise he would not have been able to fulfill.  It is likely that if the BPC allowed Alpine’s prison industry operation to remain open as Connett suggested, the state could now be on the hook for millions more in unpaid debt from Alpine as prisoners manufactured components for the SkyVue project.

In this case it was half a million lost through the NDOC Deputy Director’s failure to apply available cures to a single contract’s defaults.  It could easily have been millions more if local business had not raised the alarm last year and organized labor had not joined forces with them.

As the Alpine story has shown us all, a lack of adequate oversight will result in Nevada’s workers, businesses and prisoners to suffer.  Taxpayers bear the burden of making up losses that accrue in the absence of true oversight and firm controls.  Without proper oversight the NDOC and its programs can operate in a fiscally irresponsible manner without fear of consequences.

Next month Director Cox will present the BPC with new finalized Administrative Regulations pertaining to operating the state’s prison industry program(s).  It is hoped that those regulations will provide genuine safeguards to protect everyone (staff, inmate workers, private businesses, unemployed workers and taxpayers) from exploitation such as that which occurred with Alpine Steel.


Casinos & Prison Labor – Strange Bedfellows

Casinos & Prison Labor – Strange Bedfellows

By Bob Sloan

On Tuesday March 19th, the Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners (BPC) met in Carson City to discuss an assortment of prison related issues.  Members of the BPC are: Governor Brian Sandoval, Attorney General, Catherine Cortez-Masto and Secretary of State, Ross Miller.

Issues of: (a) realignment of state Parole and Probation responsibilities with the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC; (b) compliance with the federal Rape Elimination Act; (c) certifying the Nevada State Prison as a Historical Site was on the agenda.  However, the topic which generated the most heated public discussion was listed on the agenda was: (d) a review of the prison industries program run by the NDOC.

As I’ve reported over the past two or three months, there has been an increasing amount of criticism of NDOC Director Greg Cox and Deputy Director Brian Connett over the operation of the state’s prison industry program.  This program operates under the name “Silver State Industries” and employs hundreds of inmates in various industrial programs.  Many of those prison workers are actually “employed “by private corporations and companies.

The need for discussion of prison industries during this meeting of the BPC came about due to a total lack of transparency surrounding the program.  The NDOC is reluctant to pull the veil of secrecy from prison industry operations that has hidden it from public and legislative view for years.  This was demonstrated in the meeting on the 19th by Secretary of State Miller when he was forced once again to request a list of industries being run by SSI.  AG Masto made the same request at the previous meeting in December and was assured by Deputy Director Connett that one would be provided at the following meeting.  At this time, no such list has been provided to the BPC by Cox or Connett.

Additionally, for more than two years SSI successfully hid from the BPC and Legislature the fact that Alpine Steel was not paying inmate and staff wages, lease payments, utilities or workers compensation payments owed to the state.  The NDOC also hid their lack of compliance with state statutes requiring notification to private businesses and labor before initiating new industries and took that one step further, by not even apprising the BPC in 2006 of the Alpine contract and creation of the steel fabrication industry.

SSI is operating at least half a dozen industries under the federal PIE Program – yet the Interim Finance Committee on Prison Industrial Programs was never made aware of the mandatory requirements of that program – or that those requirements also called for consulting private businesses and union officials.  They have not paid the inmate workers in the program comparable wages as mandated and have kept that secret from both the BPC and the Committee.

On March 8th the Agenda for the NDOC Budget hearing before the Ways and Means Committee listed several of the prison industries the NDOC claim were operating – but at least one of those was closed back in 2011.  So those excluded by this blanket of secrecy surrounding SSI operations includes the Nevada Assembly.  Unbelievably the one industry that has been closed for nearly two years is still being presented to the BPC as viable and operating and was mentioned as a positive in last week’s discussion.

The need for a review by the BPC in the first place was necessitated by this ongoing secrecy and lack of transparency exhibited by the NDOC, the Director and Deputy Director of Prison Industries.  It was this that caused several Nevada companies to complain the prison industry operation was being used to drive down wages in the private sector, reduce the number of available jobs for unemployed workers and argue prison based companies are competing unfairly against others in the marketplace.

At first it was a handful of steel fabrication companies that complained prison-based companies are competing unfairly against others in the marketplace by using – illegally underpaid – inmate labor to underbid on contracts.  But by the day of the meeting, another business owner named BIllow in an entirely different industry was identified as having notified the Governor and the NDOC for more than two years that his embroidery business had been compromised due to direct competition from prison industries.  This complaint had no impact upon that competition that continues to harm that man’s business in the private sector.

Responding on behalf of those complaining, former Senator Richard Bryan (D NV) proposed to the BPC that Nevada adopt the federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program’s (PIE Program) mandatory requirements as prison industry regulations.  The PIE regulations require prison industries to contact and consult with labor groups, unions and private businesses to determine if there will be a negative impact upon sales, displacement of workers or jobs lost prior to commencing any new product line or industry.  They also require inmate wages set at the same rate as those performing identical jobs on the outside.

The state takes back most of the inmate’s earnings to offset the costs of incarceration, healthcare, feeding and clothing of inmates and for victim restitution and to repay fines or fees owed by the prisoner.  Senator Bryan’s proposed solution is simple and easily adopted since Nevada currently holds a PIECP Certificate issued by the U.S. Department of Justice and has six industries participating in the PIE Program.  These SSI industries already have to abide by the mandatory requirements in more than 50% of their operations. Making it applicable to remaining industry operations, would be easily accomplished and resolve the current issues.  This proposal had the support of many of those who spoke to the BPC last Tuesday on this and other issues. Prison industry operations nationwide have been increasingly scrutinized and widely reported.

Strangely, however, most labor groups and unions have remained silent about the impact – if any – upon their members or workers from competition with prison industries.  The meeting Tuesday broke that ongoing silence, with both the Nevada Executive Secretary Treasurer of the AFLCIO, Danny Thompson and Robbie Conway, Business Agent of Ironworkers Local 433 sitting down with the BPC and objecting to the ongoing competition from prison labor.  Others representing Nevada Law Enforcement, Parole and Probation workers and NDOC employees, also stated their support for the proposed adoption of PIE regulations.

To be fair, the one member of the Committee representing labor is Mr. Magnani of the Teamsters who is totally outnumbered by NDOC, legislative and business members.  His single voice and vote is constantly outweighed by the two members representing the NDOC (Director Cox and NDOC purchasing agent, Greg Smith) and seven more representing business and the legislature. Time and again the minutes reflect Magnani asked for materials, lists of industries in operation and on occasion voiced his opposition to suggested actions advanced by the NDOC (such as the current proposal for a recycling industry).  None of his requests resulted in Connett or the NDOC providing what he’d requested and his vote opposing actions proposed by the NDOC or SSI went against a majority of votes favoring the proposals.

Some members of the Committee would be absent for several meetings then return and cast a vote without any real understanding of what they were voting on – just that the proposals were favored by the NDOC.  So the suggestion presented by Connett last week to the BPC that the “advisory Committee” was a good representation for labor and businesses alike, was disingenuous and misleading at best.

Joining Union voices in opposition of making inmate labor available to private companies were a number of non-union businesses in a rare demonstration of solidarity.  Nearly a dozen union and non-union steel companies signed petitions to the BOPC objecting to the use of prison labor by Alpine Steel, Inc. as a means of underbidding them for steel construction projects in Nevada.  Alpine had been using inmate labor as a means of gaining an advantage over competitors since 2006.

The three petitions stated:

“Honorable Governor Sandoval, Attorney General Masto and Secretary of State Miller; We the undersigned owners of steel businesses in Nevada wish to voice our objection to competing against state subsidized prison industries in Southern Nevada.  Competing against prison labor reduces the number of jobs available in our industry and hampers our businesses from expanding.”

Signatories included; Southwest Steel, Tandem Industries, Vegas Steel, Inc., Southern Nevada Welding, A & N Custom Fabricators, XL Steel and Imperial Iron, Inc. The letter from Southwest Steel outlined the objection(s) best:

“Honorable Governor Sandoval, Attorney General Masto & Secretary of State Miller; As you all know too well, the construction industry in the Las Vegas valley is as competitive as it’s been in 20 years. With that being said, companies large and small have had to make radical changes; be it cutback of manpower, chase work in different markets or revisit our business model in its entirety, to maintain existence over the last 3 – 4 years has been a challenge. “As the Vice President of Operations for one of the larger steel companies in Nevada, I wish to voice our Company’s objection to competing against state subsidized prison industries in Southern Nevada. Competing against prison labor reduces the number of jobs available in our industry and hampers our businesses from expanding. Tom Morgan Vice President, Operations Southwest Steel”

The references to “state subsidized prison industries” come from the unpaid debt outlined above.  For several years Alpine was able to continue operations at the High Desert State Prison, working approximately fifty inmates for several years without paying any of the costs associated with keeping the industry operating. The state of Nevada has had to pay supervisory staff’s salaries, cover the utility costs of Alpine Steel and absorb the lost lease payments.  The total cost to Nevada’s Taxpayers? $438,000+ according to the forbearance agreement between the Attorney General’s office, NDOC and Alpine Steel:

forbearance excerpt

Only after complaints against Alpine Steel’s use of inmate labor was it discovered that the company had been operating basically without covering the costs of operations – which were ultimately passed on to Nevada taxpayers.   Silver State Industries had curiously authorized the steel fabricating prison industry to remain open and available to Alpine even as SSI was losing money throughout 2011 and 2012, essentially “doubling down” in the hope of recovering its losses.  Once the “debt” and gambling was made public, SSI was forced to close the steel fabrication industry and deny further inmate labor to Alpine.

The foregoing debt is to be paid off over another four year period, very surprisingly given the circumstances, without any interest going forward, unless Alpine defaults on monthly payments of $5,000.  An additional state tax lien was placed against Alpine Steel in January of this year for another $38,000 plus owed to the Nevada Department of Taxation.

The Alpine Steel story reveals that this company is responsible for the current problems and full media attention now focused upon Nevada’s prison industry program after the Associated Press, Bloomberg Business, Yahoo Finance and California media picked up this story and spread it as far as New Zealand and Australia.  The entire program and indeed, prisoner labor has now come under intense international scrutiny because of the complaints brought against Alpine Steel and the subsidization of its business using Nevadans’ tax dollars.

This has now resulted in the prison industry program being publicly brought to its knees while state regulations and statutes are under review for amendment because of the actions of Alpine Steel and the NDOC – which occurred without proper oversight.  With the steel fabrication industry shut down, Randy Bulloch has been transformed from a “partner” in the prison industrial program, to a “debtor” forced by the state to repay a huge sum owed to the NDOC.  He has not melted into obscurity with the stigma of having bilked taxpayers out of nearly half a million dollars, instead coming to every meeting involving prison industries and doing his best to fight on behalf of access to inmate labor.

Bulloch and Alpine are out of the prison industry program and business, yet surprisingly, Bulloch is now the “Poster Child” for prisoner labor.  He is now being used by the NDOC to argue on behalf of continuing the program!  Bulloch and NDOC Deputy Director Connett have been seen conferring and whispering before and after budget hearings and meetings – like co-defendants instead of partners in a failed business relationship – a weird sort of relationship with one owing the other nearly a half a million dollars and both continuing to work together.

Mr. Bulloch confided to me in an exclusive interview that he would once again use prisoners to fabricate his steel components…as long as he did not have to pay “comparable wages” to inmates, as was suggested by Senator Bryan’s proposal.  Yet there he was on Tuesday, arguing fiercely in support of the prison industry program, his lone voice supporting prison industries and opposing the views presented by unions, unemployed workers and private businesses.  One has to wonder – why?

Curiously, Director Cox and Deputy Director Connett assign no blame for their current circumstances to Bulloch or Alpine – perhaps that is why Bulloch continues to act as a spokesman on behalf of prison industries.  It will be interesting to see if Randy Bulloch continues his advocacy on behalf of prison labor in future meetings or hearings in the absence of any official business relationship with prison industries.

Nevada companies argue that aside from being forced to compete against already low wages paid to prisoners by Alpine Steel, they have had to pay proper taxes, utilities, leases and workers compensation…or be closed down by the state of Nevada.  This creates a situation whereby the State of Nevada is subsidizing an unfair advantage to Alpine. Now you can play online casino if you are from NJ, have a look at this casino site to view the licensed USA casino sites. This not only hampers any business expansion by free enterprise companies, it also reduces the number of jobs available to unemployed steel workers in Nevada.

Critics of the prison industry programs operated by SSI point to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee (the Committee) on Industrial Programs as failing in their duties of oversight.  They blame the committee for failing to protect businesses and workers against prison industry operations.

This committee is made up of Assembly members, Legislators, business owners or representatives and the one member representing labor (Mr. Magnani):

Members Assemblyman James Ohrenschall,

Chair Senator David R. Parks,

Vice Chair Senator Dean A. Rhoads

Assemblyman John Ellison

Bruce Aguilera, Las Vegas – (Vice President/General Counsel, Bellagio)

Michael Mackenzie, Las Vegas – (Principal, Operations Improvement Company)

Mike Magnani, Las Vegas – (Teamster/Union Representative)

Allen J. Puliz, Las Vegas – (Moving and Storage Co.)

James “Greg” Cox, Director, Department of Corrections

Greg Smith, Purchasing Division

Alternate Members

Debra Miller, Las Vegas

Scott Stolberg, Las Vegas

Richard Serlin, Las Vegas

While the arguments of a lack of protecting some businesses from unfair competition appear factual, other businesses represented on this Committee have profited handsomely from prison labor and industries.  In this undated article, NDOC Deputy Director, Howard Skolnik (who preceded Brian Connett) bragged about the prison industry, saying:

 “Skolnik explained, ‘I suspect that most people don’t know that anything they are using is made by inmates. More and more of it is. If you have been in many of our major properties you have seen a stained glass window, you have seen something that is manufactured in one of our institutions.’

Excalibur stained glass 2

They built all the original stained glass in the Excalibur; make casino mattresses, chairs for attorneys, and exclusive lines of clothing for airport retailers. They make award plaques, reupholster cars and rebuild water trucks for a local water company…”

Clothing - mattress pic

Those involved in the Casino industry in Nevada appear to have profited off of prison labor due to the manufacture of mattresses and custom stained glass products – as have clothing retailers selling to travelers and tourists passing through Nevada’s airports.

This “Committee” has been overseeing prison industries since the late 1980’s and every industry, product, contract with a private company and for determining the impact upon competing companies and workers, comes under their responsibility.  They had to approve the prison industry manufacture of the stained glass for the Excalibur and for the mattresses for casino/resorts…and the manufacture of clothing for sale to tourists.

Once the Committee makes their decision on new products or a new industry, that decision is supposed to then go to the Board of Prison Commissioners for final review and approval or denial.  In the recent case involving Alpine Steel, the BPC stated publicly that this was “an isolated incident when a contract was enacted without clearance from the prison board.”  Whether this was indeed an “isolated incident” or a practice of the Committee that became the standard over the years, is unknown.  Certainly the experience of Mr. Billow makes claims of Alpine Steel being an “isolated” incident difficult to swallow.

Throughout this story the elephant in the room remains the total lack of transparency and absence of independent oversight.  The Committee does not pursue any review of programs or industries submitted to them by the NDOC’s Deputy Director of Prison Industries.  Connett brings them a proposal for a new industry or product line and informs that he has determined this would be a viable industry or contract.  The only information obtained by the Committee is a one-sided presentation from the NDOC.  They perform no independent analysis, provide no notice to the public, labor unions of competing private businesses.  No opportunity is provided to any of these affected groups to attend a subsequent meeting where the proposal would be discussed.

Instead, as we now understand from both the NDOC Director and the BPC, the Committee has been operating as the final word on approving new industries.  The requirement of forwarding Committee recommendations to the BPC for final review and approval has been somehow eliminated.  The skipping of this important step results in the NDOC securing approval of an “interim” legislative body for new programs without notice or conference with the executive department.  The BPC has overall authority over the NDOC but in this manner they are kept out of the loop and the only safeguards provided to the public is a small Committee that has never performed their duties as required.

Even if the chain of review operated as required, this Committee would end up stamping proposals with their recommendation and forwarding it to the BPC – with a recommendation that was determined in the absence of any actual review, public input or notice.  Their determinations would be based solely upon the presentation made by the NDOC accompanied by a departmental analysis indicating the program and contract with a private company would be successful.

But, if as the BPC claims, the approval for the manufacture of products for the casinos, resorts and clothing retailers, water trucks, limousines and restoring classic cars, were ultimately not approved by them, they would still share responsibility with the Committee for lost jobs or contracts resulting from those operations.  They too have a duty to perform final reviews and failed to notice that new proposals were not being submitted.

The fact that the BPC is now attempting to address the issue and make corrections to ensure no more Nevadans lose jobs and businesses aren’t faced with unfair competition, is a benchmark.  It also highlights that the Committee has been shirking their duties for decades, approving whatever plans the NDOC and SSI put before them without vetting the company’s or the industries proposed by SSI.  They performed no independent or impartial reviews of such proposals, failed to determine factually the impact upon labor and other businesses before stamping each submission “approved”.  Again, one has to ask – why?

The proposal made by Senator Bryan makes good sense to most.  The argument against it came from NDOC Deputy Director Connett and Alpine’s owner, Randy Bulloch.  Both voiced their opposition to installing the PIE regulations as Nevada law or regulation, claiming that paying prisoners wages comparable to that paid on the outside, would remove the key incentive that attract businesses that exploit inmates  – and ultimately result in the loss of jobs to Nevadans.

Connett told the BPC, “I can’t pay prevailing wages.  If I have to pay prisoners prevailing wages, it would mean closing the industry program completely.”  That statement was more revealing than most who heard it realized.  In the PIE Program industries operated by SSI, prisoners are paid “minimum wage”, not “comparable” or “prevailing” wages as required.  SSI is required to consult with outside businesses and labor unions and groups prior to commencing any new PIE operation…and has not complied with these requirements either.

This explains why Director Cox and Connett have refused to mention or discuss the PIE Program when defending Nevada’s prison industries.  Nor has Connett explained his conflict of interest as head of the NCIA – which promotes prison industries and is tasked with ensuring compliance on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice. Another duty Deputy Director Connett has failed to fulfill.

Apparently the NDOC and top officials fear the BPC or general public looking at the PIE Program’s requirements, will find that the federal mandates have been ignored as well as existing state statutory requirements. Regardless of whether Governor Sandoval and the BPC adopt the proposed PIE Program regulations as state reg’s, the Governor stated, “”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.” This statement combined with assurances that no further prison industries will be opened without approval from the Board, indicates business owners and unemployed Nevadans are being offered at least a modicum of protection by the Governor and other members of the Board of Prison Commissioners.

In the next article I will report on my exclusive interview with Randy Bulloch and other interviews obtained while I was in Nevada for the BPC meeting.  I’ll also introduce Jacob’s Trading Company and owner Irwin Jacob and how both have attempted to build a unique empire using prison labor and factories.  JTC operates another of SSI’s prison industries in Nevada using female prisoners as a unique labor force and SSI has applied for funding to expand the facilities for JTC to put on a third shift and employ an additional 18 workers.  This discussion continues, while Nevada’s unemployed remains at near record levels and Governor Sandoval continues to inform that creating jobs is his number one priority.