New wardens bring new emphasis to prisons

In the traditional prison, the only thing that really counted was keeping the bad guys in.

But Prison Director Jackie Crawford's first two picks as wardens say that view is history. The emphasis now is on making sure prisoners who leave don't come back.

Robert Hildreth, the newly named rural camps warden, and Don Helling, who has taken over Nevada State Prison, say they want to increase the emphasis on programs such as substance abuse, life skills, education and work.

"They have to have skills so they won't come back," Hildreth said. "We have an obligation to do that. We're no longer in the business of just warehousing inmates."

But both men said the changes don''t mean the prison system is becoming a kinder, gentler place. It's still prison.

"We have to have a high level of security," Hildreth said. "Our first obligation is to protect society. But at the same time, you have to have a high level of programs. The two balance each other out."

They said that includes everything from alcohol and drug abuse, anger management to parenting skills.

"Education is extremely important," Helling said. "If you give an inmate his diploma or GED, that gives him something positive to take out with him."

Hildreth said those programs are accompanied by jobs ranging from the furniture and mattress factories to fire fighting - which not only help pay restitution to victims but develop a work ethic in individuals who have never had that kind of experience.

"Some of them come in here thinking they can hit the weights and hang out," said Hildreth, 46. "Those days are gone. We expect them to program, especially in the conservation camps."

He said a large percentage of his inmates are serving their first sentence and are motivated to get out and not come back. And he says as those counseling, education and work programs expand, he expects fewer and fewer repeat customers.

"When they leave, some of them say, 'See you, warden,' and I say, 'I hope not,'" he said.

Helling, 50, who moved from the job Hildreth now has, said the same is true of NSP even though his 800-plus inmates are likely to be bigger challenges. The fact they're in NSP, the state's toughest medium security facility, means they have a more serious and violent criminal history than those in the minimum security camps.

"Prison should be the last resort but, frankly, some people deserve to go to prison and a lot of them are at NSP," he said. "They're probably the toughest ones to reach."

But he said even the worst repeat offenders have a chance of turning their lives around if the prisons develop programs that reach them.

"Eighty percent of these individuals want to do their time and get out, get on with their lives," he said. "The fences and guns are there for the other 20 percent."

In the long run, both men said the key to success is figuring out why inmates come back.

"It can't be because they like prison, because prison's a miserable place," Helling said.


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