State lawmaker wants to increase wages for prison inmates to minimum wage

Beth Torres

If this bill passes, inmates would be paid a “living wage” while incarcerated.

Nevada State Senator Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) recently introduced a bill that would require the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) to pay inmates a “living wage” for the work they perform while behind bars.

Should the bill become law, the NDOC would pay inmates the same hourly minimum wage currently paid to Nevada workers. The Nevada minimum wage is $9.50 an hour for employees who are offered health benefits by their employer. If the employer does not offer qualifying health benefits, the minimum wage is $10.50 an hour.

Lawmaker says inmates aren’t paid fairly for their work

Introduced on February 22, 2023, Nevada Senate Bill 187 makes changes to provisions related to the employment of inmates. Currently, inmates can work in a variety of positions, such as in the prison kitchen and as forestry firefighters. The NDOC also uses inmate labor to manufacture products through the Silver State Industries program.

For example, prisoners might work in the automotive, print, furniture, or upholstery shops doing jobs such as machine operator, forklift driver, welder, or shipping clerk. One of the bill’s exhibits shows the pay range for prisoners who perform these jobs. Depending on the job, prisoner pay can start as low as 35 cents or 50 cents an hour.

In a recent interview published by Nevada Current, State Senator Dina Neal says this range is unacceptably low and is in effect “remnants of slavery.” Says Neal:

“Whether we want to ignore it or not. Whether government sanctioned or leasing to private entities, it is still convict leasing.”

Neal points out that if prisoners earn a minimum wage, they will be able to save up and have money available to them upon release. This could help make them less of a burden on taxpayers as they would be less reliant on social service programs like food stamps, subsidized housing, and Medicaid.

She goes on to say:

“The question that is being debated is whether there is a right to earn a decent amount, a living wage for the (time) you may be in prison.”

What opponents of minimum wage for prisoners have to say

One of the major concerns about increasing prisoner wages deals with financial implications. Will taxpayers be responsible for covering the costs of SB 187? If so, how much would this be?

While the estimated total costs of the current bill have not yet been released, we do have some indication of potential costs based on when Neal previously introduced a similar prison wage bill in 2021.

The Nevada Current reports that the 2021 bill included an estimated biennium cost to the NDOC of $64 million. Costs to the Department of Forestry could increase by an estimated $32.9 million over a two-year period.

Another point that critics make is that the low wages prisoners earn through partnership programs and Silver State Industries is offset by the valuable job training they receive. Through these programs, inmates learn skills they can then use to gain higher paying jobs upon release.

The concern is that the new prison wage law would force these prison job training programs to shut down as they would not be able to afford to pay the minimum wage.

Other states are considering paying inmates higher wages

This video from King 5 Seattle discusses the state’s proposal to increase wages for inmates in Washington.

Should prisoners make minimum wage for their work while serving their sentences?

It’s a controversial topic and I’d like to hear your feedback. Use the comments section to chime in.

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