CARSON CITY - State Corrections Director Greg Cox acknowledged Monday that the agency has not been performing necessary checks to ensure inmate work programs are not taking jobs from private industry workers.
"The process has not been followed," Cox said during a meeting of the State Board of Prison Commissioners. "It should have been."
Attorney Richard Bryan, former Nevada governor and U.S. senator, said his client, XL Steel, lost a contract this year to a competitor employing inmates in a Prison Industries program at High Desert State Prison.
XL Steel planned to hire 20 private workers and pay $18 to $19 per hour, he said.
He called it "unfair competition" prohibited by state law. Prison industry programs cannot have any significant effect on private industry jobs.
Since the recession, prison work projects in all states have been declining because of high unemployment in the private sector. The work projects are designed to provide skills for inmates for use after release.
Cox said he will develop regulations to require that prison industry programs be approved by the Prison Commissioners Board, chaired by Gov. Brian Sandoval.
"It is clear we (also) should have done this in the past," Cox said.
The Legislature's Committee on Industrial Programs has been reviewing all new Prison Industries projects, Cox said. No new Prison Industries programs will be approved before that the board's next meeting in March.
Bryan also said Alpine Steel, which won the bid, owes the state $415,000.
No Department of Corrections officials were available Monday to explain why the company owes the state money.
Cox in October told a legislative committee that Alpine Steel was required to pay $40,000 in back wages to inmates. The company is doing the steel work on the 500-foot Ferris wheel near Mandalay Bay.
Alpine has had prison industry contracts since 2005. During the meeting, speakers also said the company also owes $700,000 in federal taxes.
The committee's minutes show legislators were aware of the debt owed to the state. Alpine did not respond for comment.
Sandoval noted that the project review was done by the legislative committee, and made no comment on the possibility of a lawsuit by XL Steel.
Several corrections officers testified Monday regarding the safety risk posed by a small, untrained staff. One spoke of a single corrections officer alone in a 240-inmate prison unit.
The board called for a study by the National Institute of Corrections into the state's prison staffing levels.
In 29 states, there are 6.4 correctional officers for every 100 inmates, Cox said.
In Nevada, the overall ratio is 7.42 to 100. But at the Southern Desert Correctional Center the ratio is 9.9 to 100 and at the High Desert State Prison 7.4 to 100.
"Just because you have more staff doesn't mean the prison is safe," Cox said.
Former Corrections Director Howard Skolnik in 2009 frequently complained that the lack of staff put guards and the public at risk.
Sandoval expressed surprise that an analysis of staff levels had not been done in the past.
"We need to get some answers," he added.
The board delayed a decision to designate the closed Nevada State Prison as a National Historic Site.
The designation could allow grants for a citizens group that wants to turn the 150-year-old prison into a museum.
Sandoval said wants to know what legislative leaders plan for the prison.
A bill has been drafted by Assemblyman Pete Livermore, R-Carson City, to allow the volunteer preservation group to lease the prison for 99 years.
"I want to fully understand the consequences," Sandoval said. "I am pretty confident that the Legislature would like a say."
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.