Goodbye, ‘Graybar Hotel’?
August 8, 2008
It started life as a hotel and was used by politicians to establish the territory of Nevada nearly 150 years ago. A cynic might suggest its later conversion to a prison didn’t change the clientele much.
But the Nevada State Prison, which went from life as the Warm Springs Hotel to the “graybar hotel” in 1862, could soon see the end of its storied history as a place of incarceration.
The aging facility, one of the oldest continuously operated prisons west of the Mississippi, is on the table for possible closure by the Department of Corrections because of the state’s bleak financial picture.
Howard Skolnik, director of the Department of Corrections, said the prison, which has about 200 employees and just under 1,000 inmates, is the agency’s version of a money pit, requiring extensive and ongoing repairs and improvements to keep it operational and safe for staff and inmates.
The state would be better served to close the prison – a conglomeration of the original prison with its yard right out of a Warner Brothers B movie and multiple later additions – and transfer the medium security inmates to newer, more efficient facilities being built in Southern Nevada if the agency’s budget must be cut further, Skolnik said.
Whether closing the prison continues to be an option in the face of a serious budget shortfall depends on a number of factors, especially the projected growth of the inmate population.
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“The population is holding steady, so yes it’s still doable,” Skolnik said. “We’ll have to see in a year, but I’m optimistic.”
Gov. Jim Gibbons initially had included the closure as part of his budget balancing plan for this fiscal year.
“It is actually an inefficient, expensive structure that is aging,” he said in June.
The prison has seen its share of funding from the Legislature for maintenance and repairs. In the 2007 session, the prison and the nearby Northern Nevada Correctional Center were allocated nearly $1.3 million for surveillance cameras.
In 2003, $132,000 went to a weather enclosure of a gun post. Cell doors were also scheduled for replacement at a cost of $155,000. Other repairs are authorized in nearly every session.
Although lawmakers shelved the idea of closing the prison this year, the issue will likely resurface at the 2009 legislative session.
On a recent tour, Warden William Donat, who started his career with the agency at the prison in 1976, pointed out some of the issues with the aging facility.
Overall, it appeared well maintained for its age.
The four-story prison cell block, a portion of which dates back to the 19th century, is still in use, housing about 300 inmates, two to a cell, Donat said. It was last renovated in 1987.
The cell block, which looks down into what is called the lower yard, has issues with water availability. Its layout also requires a correctional officer to walk its length to monitor activity in the cells, a labor intensive process that is eliminated in newer correctional facility construction.
The cell block is old-fashioned. It has iron bars on the cells instead of the more modern style of concrete block and solid doors with windows.
But inmates don’t seem to mind, Donat said.
“Oddly enough they seem to like it,” he said. “Usually there isn’t any squawking about living in this unit.”
The infirmary and laundry facilities seem a bit cramped, with steam heat pipes and various types of wiring running exposed overhead.
The yard itself is well cared for, but definitely from another era. A sandstone cliff rises up to the west to form one of the walls, the remnants from where rock was quarried for several of Carson City’s capital buildings, including the Capitol Building.
Caves in the cliff are now closed off because of safety concerns, but at one time were used in a variety of ways. Way back when, one of the caves was used as the “hole” for troublesome inmates, Donat said.
Inmates who have yard privileges can work out with weights or play handball against the prison wall.
To the east of the yard are a number of housing units added later, some in 1979 and others after that. They do not have air conditioning. Big fans blow air into the facilities to keep temperatures tolerable.
Farther east is the segregation unit, where problem inmates are confined. In “closed custody” units, higher-risk inmates from other facilities, such as Ely’s maximum-security prison, can be housed when they are brought to the capital.
Donat said the layout of the prison itself is an issue for staff. If a higher-risk inmate from the farthest unit is brought to the visiting area, the entire old yard must be cleared of inmates for security reasons.
The linear design of the prison makes this necessary and would not be an issue with a more modern correctional facility, he said.
The prison faces ongoing issues with both water and sewer systems, Donat said.
State Archivist Guy Rocha said it may be time for the prison to close, although a phased-in approach would be preferable to an emergency shutdown to lessen the impact on employees and the community.
“It is old,” he said. “It serves better as an example of how we used to do our business than how we should be doing it now. It’s not the correctional facility we should have in the 21st century.”
Rocha said the state prison system and the capital are inextricably linked. Other than the post office, which opened in 1858, the prison is the earliest example of a functioning government in Nevada.
Kevin Ranft, a correctional officer at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center and regional vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 4041, said it is the close link between the prison and the Carson community that is of concern to department employees.
If the prison must close, then the next prison project should be in the Carson area to replace it, Ranft said. The next prison in the planning stages is scheduled to be built in Southern Nevada, he said, but state-owned property is available for prison construction in the capital.
“We want to prevent any layoffs and prevent any harm to the Carson economy. People signed on with the department to build a career and provide for their families.”
Skolnik proposed closing the prison as a way to help the state balance its budget this fiscal year, which started July 1. Shutting the prison down and relocating inmates would take about six months to accomplish.
It would save about $19 million a year.
But members of the Legislature, who met in a special session June 27 to come up with $275 million in the latest round of budget cuts, balked at the proposal.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said such a major policy decision would require more evaluation before it could be considered.
Greg Smith, a spokesman for the department, said the prison’s closure will remain on the table if further budget cuts are required in the 2009-11 budget being developed by Gibbons. Further cuts are expected because state tax revenues are not projected to recover anytime soon.
The agency has cut $85 million out of its budget already, and few options are left to reduce spending further, he said, short of closing a facility.
Two facilities already have been closed as part of the agency’s budget cuts: the Southern Nevada Correctional Center at Jean, and the Silver Springs Conservation Camp east of the capital.
And there are plans now to close just one prison unit at the Nevada State Prison to balance this year’s Corrections Department budget. The unit houses 52 inmates and has eight officers overseeing it.
For 100 years of statehood, the Nevada State Prison was the only prison in Nevada. The second major prison was built in the capital in 1964 and is now the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. The third major prison, and the first in Southern Nevada, was the Southern Nevada Correctional Center, built in 1977.
State Historic Preservation Officer Ron James said if the Nevada State Prison ever does close, it has the potential to draw tourism to the area.
“Territorial prisons are often big draws,” he said. “There is a constituency out there that likes to go to the Big House. The older the Big House the better. Territorial prisons have all the mystery of the Wild West.”