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- Other Business owners complain of unfair competition -

When researching material for the Studyof Nevada’s Prison Industry Program (released in January), I discovered that in addition to several steel fabrication companies, several other industries and manufacturers have come forward saying they’ve also been compromised by Nevada’s prison industry.  These businesses include; embroidery (Carson City), truck manufacturing (water trucks for construction use), auto restoration and repairing (classic cars) and companies involved in repackaging and/or resale of returned or refurbished goods.

In addition to those industries being victimized, any Nevadan that registers a motor vehicle, trailer or semi that requires a license plate is also being forced to contribute to the profits of the prison industry.

Under a contract with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the prison industry receives $.50 for every license plate “manufactured” and distributed in Nevada.  This fee appears to be in addition to the current contract between the NDOC prison industries and the BMV that sets pricing for the production of license plates.  Wording of AB 473 makes the payment mandatory and the money deposited to a dedicated Prison Industry Fund.  Vehicles requiring two plates (front and back) are charged an additional $1.00 per vehicle per year.

Sounds like small change for each vehicle owner – $.50 or $1.00 but with an estimated 2 million vehicles registered annually in Nevada the prison industries is expecting to receive a continuing windfall from this amended legislation.  When added to debts owed by private companies partnered with prison industries (2012 Accounts Payable and Outstanding were in excess of $600,000) the state owned and controlled “company” Silver State Industries continues to reap benefits from taxpayers.  They claim that SSI is self-sufficient and relies upon no tax dollars or appropriations for their operations, but what’s been discovered refutes that claim.  Could it be the license plate fees paid to the prison industries will be used to offset industry losses – at the expense of taxpayers who register their vehicles?

An unanswered question…since most consider registering their cars and paying for licensing a state “tax” for owning a vehicle, are Nevadans actually paying a $.50 cent tax per plate to the Prison Industries?

History
The story of Alpine Steel, LLC and their partnership contract with Nevada’s NDOC industries – Silver State Industries – has been in the news for months now.  When competing companies discovered Alpine had been using prison labor provided at or below minimum wages, they complained to the Governor and members of Nevada’s legislature about unfair competition.

Alpine had been contracting with the NDOC since 2006 to use inmates as a workforce in fabricating structural steel used in private sector construction jobs performed by the company. Due to the low labor costs, Alpine was able to respond to RFP’s and underbid all others for projects.

As the story evolved other issues began to rise to the surface identifying separate but factual concerns; unpaid wages to inmates and NDOC staff, unpaid utilities, unpaid taxes and unpaid lease payments by Alpine Steel.  In the end it was determined that Alpine owed the state nearly half a million dollars in unpaid operating costs.  Under the contract between NDOC and Alpine, there were no requirements for the posting of a performance bond or personal guarantee of payment should the corporation default.

The additional public admittance by NDOC Deputy Director Brian Connett that Alpine Steel had not been vetted for past financial or business practices prior to or during the contract(s) period brought to light that his prison industry operation had bypassed standard business practices when developing contracts with Alpine.

Hearings were held before Nevada’s Ways and Means Committee and the Board of Prison Commissioners (BPC) on the matter.  NDOC Director Greg Cox and Deputy Director Connett were questioned about the debt owed to the state by Alpine, on entry into the Alpine contract without any approval from the BPC and failures of consulting with private businesses and labor groups prior to initiating the steel industry operation.

Former Nevada U.S. Senator Richard Bryan came to the table at these meetings and proposed changes to protect Nevada’s workers, private businesses and protect inmate workers from further exploitation.

Proposed changes to Prison Industry Statute(s)
Apparently In response to concerns voiced by Governor Sandoval and his BPC and the proposal by Bryan, the Nevada Senate has proposed amending the state’s statute on prison industries through SB 478, filed on March 25th.  A hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled for Wednesday April 10th to discuss the proposed changes to NRS 209.

One important change to the statute would require any company wishing to participate in prison industry work programs post a bond to ensure situations such as that with Alpine do not reoccur with the state owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Other changes tighten the requirements for consulting private businesses that would be impacted by proposed industry products or services – and for consulting with unions and labor that may be adversely impacted by the labor of inmates. Costs associated with these consultations are borne by the company and not paid for with tax dollars and all new proposed industry or products will vetted by the Interim Finance Committee on Prison Industrial Programs.  Once that committee makes a recommendation, the proposed project is sent to the BPC where the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State will make the final decision.

Necessity for these changes

In addition to the Alpine prison operation, investigation revealed that a previous industry run in partnership between SSI and a private company resulted in the closure of at least one competing private manufacturer.  This was a project involving Thomson Equipment Company and SSI.  Thomson imported tanks and pumping equipment from foreign manufacturers and brought the materials to their prison industry facility where inmates assembled the Water Trucks.

Everyone has seen these trucks along highways and large construction sites where they’re used to spray water to keep dust down during construction.  A company that built the same trucks there in Nevada was forced to close those operations in 2006 due to the Thomson products being distributed through auctions and other outlets for as much as 30% less than the competing company’s pricing.  Workers were laid off and the company closed the division that manufactured the same products Thomson had begun selling for less.

“I either had to pay my workers much less or stop my operation to be competitive,” the company owner told me during an interview.  ”I chose to close the operation down and not make any more water trucks.  With so many Thomson products dumped on the markets, I could ill afford to pay prevailing wages to my employees and continue to be competitive.

“I had no idea that those Thomson products were made using inmate labor.  I heard they were importing components from Asia and attributed the lower pricing to that.  If I had known at that time that I was forced to close and lay off good workers because prisoners paid minimum wages were used to undercut my pricing, I would have protested to state authorities.  I don’t know if protesting would have stopped it because from what I’ve read in the paper, the state is promoting prison industries.”

According to minutes of the Prison Industry Finance Committee, Thomson was bought out by a foreign conglomerate out of New Zealand and Australia.  They changed the name of the company to Silver Line Industries and began to import a huge number of tanks and other equipment from Hong Kong and elsewhere which the inmates of Nevada would transform into new truck products.  They stopped the prison operation a few years ago, but not before that operation caused the closure of competing Nevada businesses and put several workers on unemployment.  While the company put out of business by the prison industry paid prevailing wages to their workers, Thomson/Silver Line paid inmates minimum wage.

I interviewed owners of several car restoration companies in Nevada over the past couple of months.  They advised they were basically unaware of the car restoration industry run by SSI and had no idea they were competing against prisoners doing the same work on privately owned vehicles.  When I asked them about Shelby American’s use of inmate labor on the Shelby Mustang products, none of those interviewed had any inkling inmates were involved in that operation.  One said he had several acquaintances working for Shelby out by the race track in Las Vegas who assembled the Shelby line – and thought they were also manufacturing the parts used in the production.  A 2000 CNN article on Shelby American and a Wall Street Journal article about the restoration of a number of cars owned by private collectors was shown to one restorer.  The Shelby article revealed:
“Shelby American, manufacturer of the Shelby Cobra sports cars, pays Deere and a dozen other inmates at the facility an hourly wage to build every part of the car except the engine. Other workers at the Indian Springs penitentiary work for other private companies or the state restoring cars, beveling and staining glass windows, upholstering chairs and making bed mattresses.

”After five years of loyal service to his employer, the 63-year-old Deere earns less than $8,000 a year in his full-time job, gets no vacation or sick pay and is unlikely to ever be promoted.”

The WSJ story contained this information:
“The cases in question are cars—very cool vintage cars. They come in rough and battered, and inmates restore them to their original glory. It may be the penal system’s most unusual workshop…

“The auto shop’s present inventory includes 32 cars in some stage of restoration. Among them: two 1960s-era Corvettes, two 1960s Mustangs, a 1959 Thunderbird, a 1965 Malibu, a 1935 Chevy pickup and two 1969 GTOs.

“All kinds of customers bring their cars in. Barry Becker, a Las Vegas realtor, has had nearly a dozen cars restored by prisoners.

‘I just keep buying stuff I don’t need,’ he says. Among his prison-rescued treasures are a 1937 Dodge sedan convertible, a 1937 Dodge “Woody” wagon, a 1956 Nash Metropolitan and a 1941 Plymouth pickup truck

“A Las Vegas couple recently agreed to pay the prison $19,000 for a re-do of a 1973 Datsun 240Z, with a V8 engine installed. “Mom’s going to go to the store really fast,” says the shop’s director, Carl Korsgaard.

“Inmates, including a few murderers and lifers, have been trained to do everything from sanding steel bodies down to sewing upholstery. One upholsterer was born in Cuba, where Mr. Korsgaard believes he absorbed his countrymen’s talent for keeping vintage U.S. vehicles on the road.”

The business owner exclaimed, “How can the state openly promote a program such as that?  By using inmates to restore or repair privately owned vehicles, they are taking work away from hard working business owners and our employees.  I haven’t committed a crime…my workers aren’t criminals and we need work to put food on the table and pay our bills, raise our kids.  How can the state justify doing something like this that they know hurts business owners like me and dozens of others trying to make a living restoring cars?”

I couldn’t honestly answer his questions.

In 2011 the owner of Billow’s Embroidery in Carson City, Nevada began protesting to the NDOC, SSI and ultimately to Governor Sandoval that his company was losing business due to direct competition with a prison industry doing embroidery.  His complaints included the fact that he had to pay fair wages, benefits and provide insurance for his workers, while the prison industry paid no benefits, insurance and only paid minimum wage.  This made their products and service pricing substantially less than Mr. Billow was able to compete against.

Mr. Billow was invited out to the SSI Embroidery operation and given a tour of the prison industries located at the prison.  He was asked to stop complaining about unfair competition as training of prisoners was important and necessary.

During the tour Mr. Billow described as a “dog and pony show” he was shown the prison’s printing industry shop.  Mr. Billow observed that inmates were being trained on and using antiquated AB Dick offset printing equipment.  He stated, “I learned printing while in school on that equipment decades ago.  I couldn’t understand how training inmates on such old equipment would prepare them for employment in the printing industry upon release, when they would know nothing about the digital and advanced printing machinery used in the private sector.”

Mr. Billow felt that the “tour” he was given was conducted as a way of demonstrating that he was up against a huge industry run by the state and that to continue to complain would be useless.  He said he felt that it was an effort into intimidating him into silence.

Jacobs Trading Company

An ongoing industry run at the women’s prison facility operated by SSI, is a partnership with Jacobs Trading Company.  Jacobs is a national company that specializes in buying, refurbishing and repackaging returned or damaged products from retailer such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy.  Female prisoners are paid minimum wage for their labor.

The Great Recession was a boon for Jacobs Trading Co., the liquidation company in Hopkins MN. that bears the name of Irwin Jacobs, one of the state’s best-known businessmen. The company deals in overstocks, scratch-and-dents and returned merchandise and saw operating income rocket to $14 million in 2009 from $5 million in 2008.  Jacobs relies heavily upon prison labor for their repackaging operations.

Inmate workers receive the materials and repair if necessary and then remove all labeling, advertising and UPC coding that identifies the original manufacturer or retailer.  They then repackage and ship the refurbished products all over the country.  Recently Jacobs demanded SSI provide the money to expand their prison operation at the women’s prison.  Jacobs said they need another loading dock in order to put on a third shift and employ another eighteen female prisoners.

Rather than “request” the NDOC or SSI provide the new construction, Jacobs demanded that they do so, and threatened to reduce their operation to a single shift and lay off inmate workers if the state run department did not meet their demands.  Some refer to this as sharp negotiating others would call it a form of extortion.

Research revealed that Jacobs Trading Company has created an “empire” within the repackaging industry in the U.S.  Currently they operate in prison industry operations in at least six states.  Consider the following discussion that occurred fifteen years ago in reference to Jacobs Trading’s operation in Minneapolis – and legislation proposed to favor Jacobs’ use of inmate labor:

“Corrections officials are quick to cite a statewide labor shortage to justify deals such as the Jacobs bill. Employersare having trouble finding people to work, they point out.

But Neuenfeldt shoots back: “If Jacobs wants to bring 50 jobs to Wisconsin, it would be good to open up an operation in central-city Milwaukee or somewhere else in the state where we have high unemployment.

“And I would think that the business community, especially small business, would have some concern over businesses set up using prison labor, because if this guy pays a dollar an hour it’s pretty hard to compete with that,” he adds.

If the Jacobs legislation passes as currently written, Jacobs will indeed pay inmates $1 per hour, skirting a federal interstate commerce law that requires that prisoners working for commercial ventures be paid prevailing wage.

“Federal law only applies to the production or manufacturing of a product,” says Steve Kronzer, director of Badger State Industries. “If they started repairing then it would be considered manufacturing, and then it would come under the federal law.”[1]

The Jacobs plan demonstrates the enthusiasm with which the Department of Corrections is expanding into the private sector–even at the expense of profits. “The whole reason for doing this thing is so the state gets money back to cover its losses for boarding these people,” says Neuenfeldt.

But, the labor rep says, some basic math shows that the savings would be minimal, possibly nonexistent.

The 50 inmates involved would be paid $1 per hour for 1,950 hours. This would cost Jacobs $97,500 a year in wages. Thus, each inmate would be paid about $2,000 a year. Fifteen percent of that would go to the corrections system, and another 5% would go to the victim-restitution fund. The state’s 15% comes to $14,625, plus an estimated $8,000 savings from wages the state would no longer pay the inmates who would otherwise be employed in other ventures. So the state gain would be around $27,525.

But the state would also have to pay for a supervisor, which the AFL-CIO estimates will cost $17,800. This brings the state’s take down to $9,725. Subtract the costs of facility adjustments and security measures, and “the Jacobs bill could even be a money-losing proposition,” says Neuenfeldt.

So why do it?

“You have to understand the mentality that goes on within the prison industries itself,” says Nick George, director of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. George served on a prison industries advisory committee that discussed the governor’s budget proposals.

“In prison industries, there is a mentality, and this is not unique to Wisconsin, of wanting to see their industries grow,” he explains. “They have a number of advantages over private industry, and a lot of the individuals who run these prison industries have an empire-building attitude.”

Several of these operations are identified as participating in the federal Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIE Program).  This program allows companies to use inmate labor to manufacture products sold and shipped across state lines – but only where the company pays prevailing wages to the inmates, consults with private companies performing the same manufacturing or services and with labor unions, prior to start-up of the industry.

While the Jacobs operation in Nevada is listed as a PIE Program participant, the inmates are not paid comparable wages.  They receive minimum wage or less for all job descriptions, regardless of years of experience or skill.

In other states Jacobs has failed to register these operations as PIE though the products received at those facilities cross state lines and finished products are shipped back across state lines.  Here is a listing of some of those current or former Jacobs operations:

Nevada – Southern Nevada Correctional Center.

Oklahoma – Eddie Warrior Correctional Center (not listed as PIE).

Idaho

North Dakota

Indiana -  Bunker Hill,  and Rockville, Indiana

Minnesota

Currently Nevada is the only “PIE” operation listed for Jacobs…yet as shown, they are operating in Oklahoma without listing it as a PIE industry.  In each of the foregoing states inmates are used as the sole workforce for Jacobs’ repackaging operations.  Jacobs does not use non-inmate labor in their repackaging operations.  Looking at the map of distribution centers operated by Jacobs, one finds that they are placed in areas where the prison industries are operating.  In a couple of those industry operations, Jacobs has acquired exclusive contracts with Corrections Corporation of America to use inmate labor and facilities under control of this private prison company.

Jacobs Trading and its owner, Irwin Jacobs have been in the news in a similar manner to Alpine Steel and owner Randy Bulloch over questionable business practices.  In 1997 Jacobs retail operations were sold to Petters Group Worldwide.  After failing to make payments for their purchase, the stores were ultimately shut down.

(It is interesting to note that Tom Petters, whose company had purchased the retail operations from Jacobs Trading, was recently convicted of multiple felony counts as part of a $3.65 Billion Ponzi scheme.)

In 2010 Irwin Jacobs came under intense scrutiny over investments made in a top boat company, Genmar.  It appears Jacobs urged investors to put money into Genmar before the company wound up in bankruptcy.  In the two years preceding that collapse, Jacobs and some of his investors received substantial “dividends” from Genmar as it was financially foundering.

Once the bankruptcy was final, Jacobs and one of his investor friends began buying Genmar back for pennies on the dollar, vowing to make it one of Jacob’s “best acquisitions ever.”

Corruption in Prison Industries
I mention Jacobs and the appearance of manipulating businesses and use of inmate labor, because a means of capitalizing off cheap labor permeates all the companies involved in prison industries.  Alpine Steel revealed that aspect to Nevadans recently.  Previously I wrote about U.S. Technologies that was formed for the specific purpose of using inmate labor in the PIE Program to provide a labor advantage to numerous companies acquired by U.S. Technologies.

Like Jacobs, UST formed exclusive contracts with CCA and/or Geo Group to allow them to operate at all facilities owned or managed by these private prison companies that have prison industry operations.

Board members of UST included many top names of the politically and financially powerful in Washington; George J. Mitchell, William Webster, General Alexander J. Haig Jr., etc.  In 2006 UST went belly up after the Chairman was indicted for embezzling over $20 million in investor funds.  The SEC devalued UST stock and the high profile Board members ran from any connectivity to UST as quickly as possible.

In Florida the prison industry corporation PRIDE came under fire for creating nine spin-off corporations to take advantage of the PIE Program and turn huge profits.  The entire executive staff was forced to retire once the scandal broke but that didn’t save four private companies that had been taken over entirely by PRIDE, putting the legal business owners into bankruptcy.

Beyond the cheap low cost labor, is the ability to secure equally cheap leases on state owned manufacturing facilities and as in Nevada, avoid paying the Modified Business Tax on employees.  Alpine secured a lease of 20,000 square feet of manufacturing space from the NDOC.  The contract charged Alpine $.26 cents per square foot for that property.  The average cost per square foot for comparable space in the private sector is $.68 cents a square foot.  Which means Alpine enjoyed a savings of $95,000 in operational expenses every year.

This “savings” to Alpine Steel reduced the potential revenue stream to taxpayers – for the lease of public owned facilities – to the tune of that same $95,000.  When we calculate savings realized by Alpine over the past 7 years that this contract with SSI existed, we easily determine that taxpayers lost more than $665,000 in potential revenue.  Between this loss of potential income and the actual amount owed to the state by Alpine Steel in unpaid debt and unpaid taxes, Nevada is out more than $1 million dollars.  Over the next four years Alpine’s owner has agreed to repay $438,000 owed in the unpaid debt without additional penalties or interest…but the income lost under the leases is gone and there is no provision for Alpine to repay the additional $38,000 owed to the Dept of Revenue for unpaid state taxes.

That $1 million dollars represents a huge loss to a state with high unemployment rates, a declining tax base and increasing government costs.  Nevada in effect subsidized one company’s operations to the tune of a million dollars over half a decade while the competing companies lost income and the ability to hire new workers due to that subsidization.  To me this is beyond unfair, it borders on the very definition of corruption.

Additionally, Jacobs Trading, JT Wholesale, the Embroidery industry and other companies that have left SSI; Shelby American, Thomson Equipment, etc. all have/had similar sweetheart leases on publicly owned facility spaces and inmate wage rates.  How much more in revenue was denied to Nevada’s taxpayers from these leases?  How many more Nevada workers were not hired because inmates were used instead?

So there is a lot of incentive for companies to partner with state run prison industries.  The temptation to realize huge savings off cheap labor, low cost leases, tax breaks, and no requirement to pay worker benefits is too attractive to companies already looking desperately for an “edge” in their respective markets.

When government administrators “help” by increasing the incentives for companies to bring their manufacturing and labor needs to prison industries, it further depresses the normal employment and sales markets.  Leases to the likes of Alpine Steel were made without approval or even review by the Legislature or the Executive branch of government.  The wage rates paid to inmates are likewise without review or question…all leading to the current situation in Nevada.

When we realize the numbers of industries, businesses and unemployed workers who continue to be harmed because of prison industry operation we begin to understand why Nevada jobs are becoming scarce, why private business sales are suffering and why new businesses are finding it more difficult to compete against a captive workforce supported by state subsidized operations.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss the proposed changes to Nevada’s prison industries this coming Wednesday.  I would encourage those who think they are or may be adversely affected by competition in your industry by prison labor, to attend and use this opportunity to voice your opinion.

Originally posted to Bob Sloan on Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 03:32 PM PDT.

Also republished by American Legislative Transparency Project.

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