Governor calls for review of new prison industry contracts

CARSON CITY — There will be no new contracts approved for prison industry jobs that are not first reviewed by the Board of State Prison commissioners to prevent unfair competition with the private sector, Gov. Brian Sandoval said Tuesday.

Sandoval, chairman of the panel, made his remarks in response to concerns by private-sector representatives, including attorney Richard Bryan, a former Nevada governor and U.S. senator who is representing XL Steel.

Bryan told the board in December that his client lost a contract to a competitor employing inmates at High Desert State Prison. XL Steel planned to hire 20 private workers and pay $18 to $19 per hour, he said.

Traditionally, the Prison Board reviewed proposed prison industry programs to ensure they did not compete with the private sector, but at some point the projects were being reviewed only by the Legislature’s Committee on Industrial Programs.

Sandoval said the Board of State Prison Commissioners, which includes Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, will resume that oversight too.

“I will assure you that I’m going to be very vigilant to ensure that — because that is part of what I’ve been trying to do these past two years, to get Nevada working again — and I don’t want to see a situation where private-sector jobs are lost,” Sandoval said.

Bryan submitted a letter to the board outlining suggested criteria to ensure prison industry projects comply with the noncompetition requirement.

There is no such mechanism or requirement now to alert the private sector when state prison construction projects not subject to the federal requirements are being considered, he said.

At the federal level, there are requirements for specific findings of no displacement of private-sector workers and that comparable wages are offered, Bryan said. Consultation with local businesses and labor groups also is required.

Bryan’s recommendations were endorsed by Danny Thompson of the Nevada State AFL-CIO.

“Without some sort of guidelines, you’re going to have a similar problem,” he said. “The work that was done that unfairly competed against Senator Bryan’s client actually put some of my members out of work.”

Thompson said he didn’t want to assess blame, just ensure a similar situation does not happen again.

“I understand the need at the prison; I understand that prisoners who are working are easier to manage than prisoners who are not,” he said. “But the kind of work that was being done in this particular case did displace taxpaying citizens.”

State Corrections Director Greg Cox acknowledged in December that his agency had not been performing necessary checks to ensure inmate work programs are not taking jobs from private-industry workers.

A proposed regulation for the Prison Board to consider at its meeting was postponed.

Bryan said he expects to work with the Corrections Department to craft a proposal that would ensure future concerns over prison industry contracts can be avoided.

Bryan’s client lost the bid to Alpine Steel, which has had prison industry contracts since 2005. One of the contracts was for steel work on the 500-foot Ferris wheel near Mandalay Bay.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900.