Nevada State Prison warden to retire

When John Ignacio took over the Nevada State Prison, it was a rat's nest of trouble with frequent racial and gang violence, a history of escapes and a reputation as one of the nation's oldest and toughest prisons.

But on the eve of his retirement last week, the man they call "John I" proudly described the prison as "boring."

Located on Fifth Street east of Carson City, it has been a state prison nearly 140 years. No one in that time has been warden as long as Ignacio, whose last day was Friday. Don Helling is now warden.

Ignacio, 63, has worked for Nevada's prison system since 1975 - much of that time in NSP. He's been warden there for more than a decade.

But he says prisons was his second career. The first was as an X-ray technician working for his Ph.D in anthropology. He already had a master's degree from Southern Methodist University.

But the prison job sounded more interesting than working for the health department, and after a few years the Ph.D was permanently on hold.

"I think my third career is going to be driving a dive boat," he said, referring to his passion for scuba diving.

He expects he and his wife Terri, a scuba instructor, will eventually move "somewhere where there's warm water" and open a dive center.

The job of prison warden has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. When he started in 1975, he says, there were far fewer rules.

"We used to fly by the seat of our pants. It's a lot more formalized, a lot more structured now - and probably a lot better," he said.

And there's a lot less trouble at NSP than in the past. Gangs and racial unrest were problems in those days and the prison - which was Nevada's maximum security prison until Ely opened in 1990 - was often "locked down," with inmates confined to their cells.

Now, violence and escape attempts are rare.

"It's gotten a lot easier since that riot in 1981," he said. "There have been only a couple of deaths."

Moving the worst people to Ely helped, but NSP is still "medium max."

"There are a lot of bad people here," he said.

A formal system of inmate classification has helped as has "intake" to teach new prisoners how to survive in the prison society.

"We used to just throw them in the yard and say survive. We do things a little better now."

Ignacio says the programs offered to help inmates make it once they get out have grown tremendously. He points out that in Nevada he helped start some of those programs, including the literacy program.

"I had a guy who wanted in the prison industry program, and I told him I'd get him a job in prison industries if he learned to read and write. He said OK, so I told the counselors to teach him to read and write.

"We didn't have any money for it. We ran it for a couple of years on nothing, then the director went to the Legislature and got us some money."

Ignacio helped bring in Alcoholics Anonymous and drug rehabilitation programs as well and says that type of counseling, like the literacy programs, can help many more inmates make it on the outside.

He says his success is because of some simple rules: "I'm always consistent and I treat everybody exactly the same, I don't care who you are."

Ignacio has a reputation for not tolerating bad work. When he returned from a vacation two years ago to find out an inmate, who was an amputee, had managed to climb the fence and escape, he admits he was so mad he couldn't see straight.

"I tried to fire four or five people over that. They wouldn't let me."

But he did take away telephones, radios, small TVs and other amenities guards in the towers had accumulated. That brought a storm of protests from those guards, but Ignacio says he doesn't care.

"They're not supposed to be watching TV, talking to their friends on the phone. They're supposed to be watching the yard."

He predicts that will be the first thing the staff asks Warden Helling to change - probably this week.

"I advised him, 'Don't do it,'" he said.

While the prison has changed, the inmates, he says, haven't.

"The fun part of this job is they try and beat you - try and beat you all the time. The bottom line is most of them are in here because they're dumb. They think they're smarter than you are, but they aren't."

Ignacio says parole boards and experts studying inmates may have their own systems for deciding who is ready to leave prison and what their chances of staying clean are, but it's no mystery to the officers who have been guarding them for years.

"Guys who go out on parole, you can look at them and say, 'He'll be back.' You always know who they are.

"Those guys are just doing life on the installment plan. Others come in here on a five- year sentence and work themselves into a life sentence.

"Then there are the guys who don't want to get out," he said, explaining that some inmates are happier and safer in prison than out.

"We had one guy who had a parole in his pocket and escaped," he said. "He went downtown and I think he threw a brick through a window. Then there was the guy who expired his sentence and, after a week, was banging on the door to get back in."

He said the only people dumber than some of the inmates are the wives, girlfriends and even mothers who get conned into trying to sneak in drugs and other contraband.

"It's amazing they would do things like that. Stupid. We catch them."


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