Bipartisan support for proposal to pay working inmates minimum wage

By: - March 11, 2021 6:20 am

Democratic state Sen. Dina Neal said is it counterproductive to “be paying wages to prisoners at 35 cents an hour and then place these ex-offenders on the street into poverty, and then have additional government money to then help find them a job.” (Nevada Department of Corrections social media photo)

The hourly rate for an inmate employed as a maintenance worker by Silver State Industries, the Nevada Department of Corrections’ industrial work program, is 50 cents. 

A mechanic at the autobody shop could be paid as little as 60 cents an hour while a carpenter could earn between 85 cents to $1.50 an hour. 

Administrative clerks, purchasing clerks and production assistants at the garment factory could earn between $1 an hour and $4.50 

Speaking during a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Democratic state Sen. Dina Neal called the lack of living wages for inmates both a moral issue in need of reform and a public policy issue with social and economic ramifications. 

Senate Bill 140, which received overwhelming bipartisan support during its first hearing, would require the state to pay inmates “an hourly wage that is equivalent to the state minimum wage.” 

“Formerly incarcerated people when they are released find themselves released in poverty with no job and potentially no housing,” Neal said. 

Neal said the legislation would prevent inmates from leaving prison without any money, which could result in them going on welfare or seeking assistance at a “workforce agency where there are millions of dollars being expended to help them find a job when the goal of the re-entry system with NDOC should be job placement.”

The state, she added, spends $2.8 million in federal dollars to help those released from prisons find employment.

She said it was counterintuitive to “be paying wages to prisoners at 35 cents an hour and then place these ex-offenders on the street into poverty, and then have additional government money to then help find them a job.”

Neal expected opposition from the Nevada Department of Corrections, but no official from the agency was present for the bill hearing. No one testified in opposition or “neutral.”

SB 140 would create an “Offender Release Fund” to ensure the wages being earned are set aside for inmates to save money prior to being released. 

“Imagine getting released from prison with no money, yet you’re barred from getting an apartment, you have difficulties getting certain jobs, and up until 2019 you couldn’t even vote,” said Leslie Turner, who runs the mass liberation program with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “Yet, you expect people to get out and be productive members of society. That can’t happen if you’re not given the tools to be able to do that.” 

Neal assumed the provision around the minimum wage would be controversial, but was surprised it also got bipartisan support. 

“We need to move away from a pure punitive system to a rehabilitative system,” said Republican state Sen. Keith Pickard, “one that gives these guys and gals the opportunity to learn a skill, get an education and create the foundation that once they get out they can actually succeed.”

From what little amounts inmates earn, Nevada law authorizes deductions for items including prison industry capital improvement projects, victims of crime funds, and room and board depending on the type and placement of the job. 

Neal said the 494 inmates working in 2019 had $456,883 deducted from their pay. 

SB 140 also eliminates all wage deductions except ones that allow inmates to provide support for families on the outside as well as victim restitution.

Pickard questioned whether a separate piece of legislation that would address the department’s ability to deduct from inmate accounts, Senate Bill 22, would impact Neal’s proposal.

She declined to speak on SB 22. 

Though he supported the need to deduct inmates’ accounts for victim restitution, Pickard wondered if it was possible for inmates to save enough money with the minimum wage, especially if the department of corrections were to deduct upwards of 50 percent.

“Even if you get half of minimum wage, you’re not going to get enough to pay for more than a month or two depending on how long you’re in,” he said. 

The last part of the bill would aim to place released inmates “in a position that utilizes the skills similar to those used by the offender” at the jobs they had while incarcerated.

Neal said it doesn’t make sense for inmates, who work for multiple years while incarcerated and gain on-the-job skills, to exit prison without a job similar to what they were doing. 

“They don’t leave as a carpenter. They don’t leave. They don’t leave as an upholsterer,” Neal said. “That is just the work they do inside. They don’t pick up that job on the outside. I don’t understand why they don’t.”

Neal referred to the policy of underpaying inmates as convicted leasing with roots tied to slavery. 

“In the political backdrop of the 13th Amendment and the reconstruction era, the South found another way to capture its lost labor force through incarceration,” she said.

Turner said the legislation begins to address the ramifications associated with convict leasing.

“Passing SB 140 would be a really profound step to undoing the laws that contributed to systemic racism and it opens up a discussion on how systemic racism impacts everyone, including people who are not Black and not people of color,” she said. “It impacts the government. There is a ripple effect throughout communities and throughout society.”

But more importantly, Turner stressed the bill was about recognizing people’s humanity and the fact that “incarcerated people are human beings and therefore should be paid for their labor.”

“Otherwise it is slave labor.” 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.