Nevada prison blues
A state commission proposes shifting prisons from rural to urban areas
In 1979 after Assemblymember Peggy Cavnar of Clark County had put out one too many news releases attacking her colleagues—something she seemed to do incessantly—they found a way to deal with her: They put a new prison in her legislative district, at Indian Springs. The alarmed residents of her district went crazy, giving her something new to think about. Though she fought the siting, the prison was built.
That kind of prison site selection is common in Nevada. When the state’s new maximum prison was put in Ely, it was economic development—one of three projects authorized by the Nevada Legislature to beef up the town’s economy after the shutdown of the Kennecott copper mining operation in the county. Economic development was also the reason for construction of a prison in Lovelock, which Assemblymember Bernie Anderson said was the only Nevada community that lost population in the 1990 census.
Rarely has wise penology been a determining factor in siting a prison.
On Jan. 7, the state Spending and Government Efficiency Commission issued a recommendation that two of those rural prison locations—Ely and Lovelock—be called failures and that the state get rid of the properties in favor of urban locations.
The recommendation reads, “Explore the possibility of an exchange of Ely State Prison and Lovelock Correctional Center to companies that specialize in private corrections in return for construction of similar facilities located within existing large population centers to be determined by the Board of Prison Commissioners.”
In releasing the package of recommendations, of which the prison proposal was a part, commission chair Bruce James, a former GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, called on state legislators to “set aside their partisan differences to put the public’s interest first.”
In December 2007, after families of inmates began organizing to agitate for better conditions at the Ely prison, physician William Noel was retained by the American Civil Liberties Union to inspect the facility. He wrote a report saying that at the prison he encountered “the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering that I have ever encountered in the medical profession in my 35 years of practice. … The pervasive disregard for human suffering and the shocking medical malpractice revealed in the 35 case files I reviewed is almost unbelievable.” Nevada prisons director Howard Skolnik belittled Noel’s qualifications in corrections and said he opposed a settlement with the ACLU.
After the Nevada Prison Commission—made up of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state—rebuffed an ACLU proposal for improved health care at the prison, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the national ACLU’s Prison Project filed a class-action lawsuit against the state on March 5, 2008. It charged the state with failing to correct insufficient health care. The lawsuit claimed that the prison lacked “the most basic elements of an adequate prison health care system and deprives prisoners of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” On March 21, 2009, federal judge Larry Hicks—a former Washoe County district attorney—certified the class action and appointed ACLU lawyers to represent inmates. Meanwhile the families have become more organized, started a website, and have been lobbying state policymakers.
The Lovelock prison is now best known for inmate number 1027820—O.J. Simpson. Its location in Lovelock, which has limited housing, has meant in some cases that prison workers have commuted from Reno, a distance of 250 miles. The relative isolation of the two prisons has meant the state has had chronic difficulties in keeping the facilities staffed.
In addition, because family visits are ranked high in rehabilitation factors, the isolation can be hazardous.
Lovelock is a medium security facility, Ely a maximum security prison. Lovelock opened in August 1995, Ely in July 1989. Ely has an inmate capacity of 1,150, Lovelock of 1,680.
Lee Rowland, the ACLU chief in Northern Nevada, said, “We have mixed feelings about the possible move to privatize prisons and move them closer to urban areas. On the one hand, long distances between prisoners and their families makes rehabilitation difficult and hurts families. Further, having prisons in remote parts of the state also poses logistical problems for delivery of critical medical services, as we have seen firsthand in our investigation of and litigation concerning medical care at Ely State Prison. On the other hand, privatization raises a whole panoply of problems and would worsen problems of accountability and oversight of prisons. Finally, the ACLU of Nevada firmly believes that policing and incarcerating should solely be state duties, and should not be farmed out to the lowest bidder.”
It’s not clear why a private prisons corporation like Corrections Corporation of America or Wackenhut would want to build two urban prisons for the state to run and then take over the two rural prisons themselves. In any event, if the deal went through, the state would have two private prisons over which it had limited control, with the corporation bringing inmates, state and federal, from other states.
Assemblymember Bernie Anderson of Washoe County, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said he does not believe the commission was familiar with the history of private prisons in Nevada before it made its recommendation. He speculates that one reason the corporations might go for it would be because it offers them a way back into the Nevada market after some bad experiences the state had with privatization in the past, including some incidents Anderson called “tragic.” In those cases, the corporations ran state prisons for Nevada rather than operated their own prisons, drawing inmates from other states.
“Generally speaking, Las Vegas and Clark County have not wanted a [private] facility in their urban environment, so I’m not sure the communities have been looking on them with an open view. … They have such a poor reputation currently with their performance here in Nevada,” Anderson said. Lobbyists for private prison corporations, he said, have made no headway in recent legislative sessions because of past events in the state.
Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County, the ranking Republican member of the Nevada Senate budget committee and a former district attorney, said lawmakers need to seriously scrutinize the commission’s proposal, but that there are areas of concern. For one, he said, while he supports private operation of prisons, he’s not sure that it should include maximum security facilities like Ely.
“I’m not sure it’s the panacea today,” he said. “They’ve had some bad experiences with us. I know that Corrections Corporation of America, for one, does a good job. I’m not sure they can handle maximum security prisons. I think that an analysis is in order. Let’s really look at how cost effective it is.”
The commission recommendation may also conflict with state prison officials’ plans. Nevada currently has one prison in Clark County shut down, and already has one urban maximum security prison in Carson City. Nevada prisons director Howard Skolnik wants to close the Carson City max and rely on the Ely max.
Skolnik is on furlough and unavailable for an interview. Deputy director Don Helling declined to be interviewed.