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Working in prison beats ''kickin' rocks''
LAS VEGAS, Nevada (Las Vegas Review Journal) -- Lloyd Deere was one of three employees who started up a custom car manufacturing shop in 1995 in an Indian Springs warehouse about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas. After five years of loyal service to his employer, the 63-year-old 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.
But Deere isn't one to complain.
"It's better than kickin' rocks," he said, sitting at an intricate harness of dashboard wires wrapped in black electrical tape. "I'm earnin' pretty good. Most of my money's going into mutual funds."
In the shop where Deere works, "kickin' rocks" is synonymous with "walkin' the yard" or "doin' slow time." The phrases are prison-speak that he and other convicted felons in the Southern Desert Correctional Center use to describe idle time. While serving a life sentence for robbing and raping a prostitute in Northern Nevada, Deere has been able to avoid the feeling of wasted time most people experience behind concrete walls and barbed wire.
He is part of a select group of Nevada prisoners that for nearly 20 years has been given the chance to earn wages while inside prison walls.
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.
"It's a good job. I like it," Deere said.
"Makes the time go faster"
A similar satisfaction permeates the staff of Jacobs Trading Co., a wholesale business whose entire Silver State operation is housed inside the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Facility in North Las Vegas, the future home of murderer Sandy Murphy. At that prison, scores of female inmates compete against one another whenever a job opens up in the institution's single workshop.
Ask any of these prisoners whether they believe they're being taken advantage of by earning minimum wage for work civilians might make more at and they will likely laugh.
"There's a lot of people locked in here that are jealous of me because I got a job," said Tammy Cates, a 41-year-old mother of two who has served about a third of her 18-year sentence for drug trafficking. "I was able to buy my son a new pair of tennis shoes last month. It makes me feel good like I used to when I could provide for him."
For 16 months, she has worked with 10 other women repackaging finished goods for Jacobs, the only private employer of female prisoners in Nevada. Like the male prisoners employed directly by the state or by the half-dozen private companies that rent work space in Nevada's penitentiaries, Cates works 40 hours a week and ends up keeping just over half of what she earns. After several deductions mandated by the state prison department, she takes in about $460 per month.
Stacey Denby works in the same shop as Cates, stripping original store labels and price tags off surplus wholesale items. She and her co-workers will eventually repackage the compressors, ceiling fans, yard lights and other products that originally did not sell and ship them out to resale outlets such as MacFrugal's Bargains Close-Out.
"It's physically demanding. It requires cognitive and motor skills and problem-solving abilities," said the 38-year-old minimum wage worker. But she smiles and adds, "It makes the time go faster."
Denby, a mother of three and grandmother of one, has served 11 1/2 years for a crime she wouldn't disclose. "I'm blessed to have this job. I was able to buy my 20-year-old daughter an '86 Caddy because of this job."
Johnie Lane, 45, has 4 1/2 years left on the burglary sentence he's serving at the men's prison in Indian Springs. He sends money he makes staining glass home to his mother and sisters, who put part of it in a savings account for him. Lane said he hopes to use the glass staining skills he's picked up inside to get a better job when he is released.
"I might try to get into the glazers' union," he said. "Those guys make about $20 per hour."
More than minimum wage
Of course not all inmates send money home to kids or parents. Many inmates say they only earn enough so that their families don't have to send them money to spend on cigarettes and other amenities in the prison commissary.
Of Nevada's 9,500 prisoners, 370 make a wage while they're doing time, but the prison industries program is soon to expand.
Most of the products are kept within Nevada. The fruits of inmates' sweat can be found throughout the state, purchased by private companies as well as state agencies. These include the beds at Treasure Island hotel and St. Rose Dominican Hospital and the furniture students and professors crack their books on at UNLV.
Every piece of furniture inside High Desert State Prison -- the new super-prison southeast of Indian Springs scheduled to open in September -- was made by an inmate, the Prisons Department said.
Inmates even make furniture modeled on modern design trends, like the California-nouveau chairs inside Venice Beach Restaurant in Henderson.
Their work sells at all prices. From the $2.20 cotton and polyester blended pillowcase to the $1,195 oak conference table, industrial needs and extravagant wants can be satisfied.
Scanning through the prison department's Web site and the lengthy price list displayed there, it might be easy to forget that the goods, which appear to be of professional quality, are made by inmates.
Though many of the workers have minimum skills, not all of them are paid minimum wage. Prisons Department Assistant Director Howard Skolnik said laborers toiling in car restoration shops can make up to $12 to $13 an hour, depending on how much they get done.
Of the 370 prisoners employed, 250 make products that will sell on the open market -- to private businesses rather than Nevada state agencies. They are guaranteed minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.
Inmates who work directly for the prison system making closed-market products -- goods that will be used by a state agency -- or cooking, cleaning and performing general maintenance at the prisons earn as little as 10 cents an hour.
After the Buck Springs wildfire broke out of control June 3, inmates working for the Nevada Division of Forestry battled the six-day blaze for $1.10 an hour.
Prisoners seeking a position at any wage level simply apply for the position and the best candidate is chosen depending on behavior records and physical ability.
When it comes time to collect their earnings, inmates discover they have more than federal tax, Social Security and Medicare deductions taken from their paychecks.
About 35 percent of inmates' wages are deducted and paid to the state and split three ways: 24.5 percent for room and board, 5 percent to a general fund that victims of crimes can apply to for financial assistance and 5 percent for capital improvements to the prison industry program.
If an inmate owes restitution to a victim of his or her crime, that's also taken out.
After the state and federal government are through making deductions, inmates might keep nothing or as much as 65 percent of their wages.
Some might find it ironic that many working under those conditions are serving sentences for grand larceny or robbery.
Others might marvel at the site of 50 criminals scattered around a workshop doing an honest day's work, many for the first time in their lives.
It's less of a shocker to the inmates.
They're climbing over one another to get one of the minimum wage-paying jobs.
"If I had 400 more jobs available tomorrow," said Skolnik. "They'd be filled immediately."
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