Union vows to fight for prison

But reprieve seems a long shot for Carson institution
By Geoff Dornan
gdornan@nevadaappeal.com,

Source: Nevada Appeal

Union officials promised Friday to fight the planned closure of the historic Nevada State Prison on Fifth Street.

Closing the 140-year-old prison would save an estimated $12.7 million this two-year budget cycle, according to Director of Corrections Howard Skolnik. But it will result in 136 layoffs in Carsjavascript:void(0)on City and the loss of business to a number of vendors and other contractors.

Carson Mayor Bob Crowell said closing the prison would be another hit to the capital’s economy.

“It has to have an adverse impact on our local economy because it’s 136 people as well as the families that they’re taking out of our economy,” he said. “Carson City wants to do what it can to help, but this will hurt. We’re all in this boat and we need to see if we can keep it afloat.”

“We will be lobbying to keep it open,” said Kevin Ranft of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union was successful in stopping plans to shut NSP during the 2009 Legislature, but Ranft said it will be a tougher fight this time because of the depth of the state’s financial crisis.

“We’re anticipating a big fight,” he said, adding there will be a rally outside the Legislature the first day of the upcoming special legislative session. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to fight this to ensure no layoffs take place and try to keep Nevada State Prison open.”

Skolnik said when he recommended closing NSP during the 2009 Legislature, it would have saved nearly $20 million a year. But with construction, remodeling and other projects reducing the available beds in the system, he said he’ll have to open up the two new units at High Desert State Prison in southern Nevada to handle the inmates now at NSP. He said that will cost about $7 million, reducing the savings to $12.7 million.

“We’ve lost the bed space we had a year and a half ago,” he said.

Skolnik said some of the staff will be able to transfer.

“We have positions elsewhere in the state for those who are willing to relocate — up to a point,” he said. “I’m not sure how many we’ll be able to absorb.”

Ranft said he is hopeful some of the employees at NSP aren’t deeply rooted in Carson City and will be able to move to keep their jobs.

Skolnik said he anticipates some longtime residents will retire rather than move.

“We have 80-plus staff in Carson City eligible to retire,” he said. “How many of them will exercise that, I don’t know.”

Moving inmates to the two new units at High Desert saves the state a lot of money. The prison is designed to use far fewer staff to guard the inmates. Each of those units will house 330 inmates. The remainder of the 751 inmates now at NSP will be absorbed into other institutions.

The only portion of NSP that would remain in operation is the execution chamber since no replacement has been built. Skolnik said if an execution was scheduled, a skeleton staff would be brought in to handle it at NSP.

The prison is one of the oldest continuously operating prisons in the nation. It opened in 1862 — two years before Nevada became a state. Until Ely State Prison was built in 1989, NSP was Nevada’s maximum security prison. Now it houses medium security inmates, a good number of them middle-aged prisoners who were convicted of major crimes but are regarded as less of a security risk because of their age.

Lawmakers kept the prison from closing in the 2009 Legislature, arguing that it made no sense to close an operating prison while spending more than $220 million to build a new institution in the south. They questioned why NSP couldn’t be updated. Public Works Manager Gus Nuñez told them the serious plumbing, electrical, safety and other problems at NSP would cost more than $70 million to fix.

“We would never recommend you spend that kind of money at this facility,” he told the committee at the time.

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