Nevada State Prison in Carson City, which dates back to the 19th century, is the oldest prison in the state, and one of the oldest in the country. For 80 years every license plate in the state has been manufactured there. The state’s only death chamber is there.
But its long history may be over. To cut costs, the state’s Department of Corrections has proposed shuttering the venerable institution and moving its prisoners elsewhere. As the Legislature weighs its options on the budget, it’s squarely facing two challenges with statewide ramifications: How quickly can felons move through the corrections system while keeping the public safe, and what kind of programs will be available to help ex-cons transition back into society in a cash-strapped economy?
The budget for corrections has increased from $121 million in fiscal year 1996 to $277 million in 2007. The Department of Corrections is attempting to reduce its budget by 14.5 percent—about $41 million—and it had originally recommended closing NSP and two conservation camps, in Pioche and Tonopah. Closer to home, the department has also proposed transferring the female inmates from Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center, in North Las Vegas, to a prison in Jean, to make way for aging and handicapped inmates.
The Pioche camp was later removed from the list of potential closures. But NSP seemed for them a clear choice. “First of all, Warm Springs Correctional Center is too small,” says DOC spokeswoman Suzanne Pardee—closing it wouldn’t close the budget gap. “Other institutions in the state are too large.” But NSP was just right—the department claims it can absorb its 900-plus inmates into other facilities.
Legislators have questioned the utility (and savings) of closing Nevada State Prison when the department is also planning to construct a new prison in Indian Springs expected to cost more than $200 million. But beyond that is the issue of what effect the closing of the prison would have on public safety and prisoner well-being. On the one hand, there is the possibility of greater problems through the system—either releasing borderline convicts who go on to commit another crime, or overcrowding the state’s other prisons.
The state may have a hard time “maintaining an appropriate balance of guards and space for inmates,” notes Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, “and the implications of that are they are close to or in violation of constitutional protections for cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowding.”
Pardee says that’s not the case, that NSP was chosen because it was the one institution where DOC could “take all those inmates and put them at other institutions without a problem. That was not a safety or security risk to do that. If anything it’s probably to the positive side for the inmates, because they’re newer institutions.”
On the other hand, closing NSP may encourage state officials to consider streamlining the corrections system by moving convicts through it faster. This week the Legislature will hear testimony from the Nevada Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice. The commission has been hearing testimony since July 2007 about reforming the system. The commission’s job is to make recommendations that would reduce the need for the system to continue growing. “What we found was the prison population has remained essentially flat since the summer of ’07,” says Rich Siegel, president of the ACLU of Nevada and a member of the commission.
According to a report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the state’s prison population increased 58 percent between 1996 and 2006, from 8,325 inmates to 13,186. This is about in line with Nevada’s 56 percent population jump during the same period. While the report estimates that Nevada’s prison population will rise to more than 20,000 inmates by 2011, Siegel says prison population has been leveling off since the Legislature passed a bill in 2007 that allowed probationers to get off probation earlier. “By having less time to violate their probation they were less likely to be revoked,” Siegel says. The law would also allow convicts serving time for less serious crimes to reach the parole board faster.
The commission has yet to make its recommendations, but closing NSP, says Siegel, “would be consistent with the thrust of the commission, because we’re looking for ways that money can be shifted from prison beds to programs. We’ve identified the biggest problem in the criminal justice system is the lack of programs for substance abuse and mental health.”
That echoes the CSG report, which notes that, as of 2007, 29 percent of NDOC inmates, both men and women, were reported to have mental illnesses, “almost twice the national average.”
Of course, money saved by the Department of Corrections may only really count if money is reinvested in the state’s battered human-services programs.
Still, says Siegel, “No one’s made a rational case for keeping NSP open. There are new prison beds online. This is the least efficient prison in the state.”