Department of Corrections going green with newest prisoner job: Sorting, recycling clothes hangers

Nevada News

The Nevada Department of Corrections’ Silver State Industries program has partnered with Sewing Collection Inc. (SCI) to offer inmates a new job opportunity — sorting clothes hangers by size and type and reboxing them. 

During the first week of operation, 16 inmates at High Desert State Prison sorted, cleaned, and repackaged 2,400 hangers, earning a wage based on productivity. Production is eventually expected to ramp up to 9,000 hangers per week. 

NDOC Director James Dzurenda said in a press release on Tuesday that he hopes the partnership provides low-risk inmates work skills that reduce the likelihood they will commit crimes after leaving prison.

“Silver State Industries does this by involving inmates in everything from clothing manufacturing and woodworking to horse gentling and printing,” Dzurenda said. “Partnering with Sewing Collection Inc. and adding this work to NDOC’s repertoire is a natural expansion.”

SCI previously had hanger recycling operations in Tijuana, Mexico, but wanted to move to the U.S. because of problems with customs and transporting items out of the country.

“This industry will give our inmates a strong work ethic by providing them structure and employment skills,” said NDOC’s Bill Quenga, Deputy Director of NDOC’s Industrial Program. “They will inventory, clean, and repackage thousands of hangers a day, which will teach them valuable warehousing and production skills.“

In addition to hanger sorting, Silver State Industries also provides other prison industry services for sewing clothes, welding, horse raising, printing and auto restoration. State data show that close to 500 inmates, or 3.5 percent of the total Nevada prison population, were working in a Silver State Industries program on an average month in fiscal year 2018. 

Originally established in Los Angeles with only one distribution center and Macy’s as its only customer, SCI has expanded into Ohio, Oregon and Nevada, recycling many of the billion-plus hangers that would otherwise end up in landfills annually. SCI vice president Rob Molaie says that the company could fill up an entire football stadium with the hangers they collect every year. 

Molaie spoke highly of working with Ohio inmates at a meeting with Nevada lawmakers in 2017, telling them that “production was amazing and every day the inmates showed up to work with excitement and joy, and it provided some motivation for the inmates,” according to minutes of the meeting.

But prison labor has not been without controversy, with critics raising questions about whether the low pay for inmates is exploitative and whether the jobs provide useful skills that translate into a competitive job market. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, prisons may be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. Prisoners in Nevada make between $.25 to $5.15 per hour doing various tasks, according to data provided to the group by the NDOC.

When Republican state Sen. Pete Goicoechea asked at the 2017 meeting if the hanger-sorting jobs would pay minimum wage, Quenga said that it would not, adding that Prison Industries would negotiate a rate per hanger.

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