Prison system plans inmate program improvements

Responding to concerns about inadequate programs, the state prison system has proposed a new inmate services division and a contract with a new southern Nevada center to help convicts returning to the streets.

A study panel formed by Gov. Kenny Guinn found that less than 1 percent of the system's budget is used for inmate programs. Most of the funding comes from grants and from a cut of the money earned by inmates in jobs they're able to hold while serving time.

Guinn's proposed $372 million prison budget for the next two fiscal years includes funds for a contract with a not-for-profit organization that would operate a transitional center, tentatively named the Casa Grande, in Las Vegas.

The governor proposes spending more than $2.7 million on the transition center plan. The center would open with 200 beds next October, and would expand to 436 inmates in November 2004.

State Corrections Director Jackie Crawford said the center is an essential part in changing the vision of the department from one of incarceration to one of inmate services.

"I'm embarrassed to share with you that when a person has completed their sentence we send them out in prison clothes and $21 and put them on the street corner. And then we wonder why they're coming back," she said.

Crawford said inmates at the center will be within four months of their release, and the facility will be within easy reach of businesses, where they can find jobs and transition back into society.

The 55-staffer inmate services division proposed in the governor's budget would cost nearly $9 million over the next two years. About $3.3 million of that amount is directed to mental health efforts.

Until last year, inmate programming, including education, intake and assessment, religious services and mental health, was handled by 20 different divisions. Currently, the prison's medical division oversees the programming.

Crawford said the new division also will help with inmate classification. Because the state has focused for so long on building high-security facilities, or "hard beds," she said many inmates are being housed in facilities that are more secure than they require.

The prison director also said the system wastes money by keeping lower-security convicts in higher-security facilities that are expensive to operate.

Crawford said low-risk inmates housed in medium-security facilities also lose good-time credits that reduce their sentences because the credits are based on the prison classification, not the inmate's classification. That loss of good time, aside from keeping inmates in prison longer, also costs the state money.

To help alleviate the problem, Crawford suggested canceling a major expansion of the High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, which would have built more hard beds at a cost of $98,000 per cell. The department also is transitioning the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City into a minimum-security facility.

Due to a leveling-off of the number of inmates coming into the state's prisons, the department is leasing 200 hard beds at High Desert State Prison to Wyoming at a rate of $62 per day.

The state's prisons currently hold about 10,050 inmates. That's about 1,000 less than expected when the current budget was passed in 2001. The state figures it will house about 10,608 inmates by the end of 2005.

More highly targeted parole, another program the state is examining, is another method to aid transitional services, reduce prison populations, reduce recidivism and save the state money.

James Austin, director of Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University, works with the Nevada Department of Corrections on inmate projections and programming development.

"Recidivism rates do not vary by how long you spend in prison," said Austin, who's currently working with the state developing a more focused approach to parole.

Because those rates don't change, the best way to manage parole is to target offenders with a low recidivism risk and parole them the first day they're eligible, Austin said. He noted Texas saw a 15,000-person drop in their population using this program.


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