Prison officials say staff increases are critical

Nevada Appeal/Cathleen Allison Nevada Prisons Director Howard Skolnik, left, and Deputy Director Darrel Rexwinkel answer budget questions Friday at the Legislature. Prison officials are asking lawmakers to approve hundreds of new positions to staff expansion projects.

Nevada Appeal/Cathleen Allison Nevada Prisons Director Howard Skolnik, left, and Deputy Director Darrel Rexwinkel answer budget questions Friday at the Legislature. Prison officials are asking lawmakers to approve hundreds of new positions to staff expansion projects.

Nevada prison officials asked lawmakers Friday to approve hundreds of new positions to staff expansion projects that will add about 2,700 new inmate beds by 2009, and also said current operations are critically understaffed.

State prisons chief Howard Skolnik told lawmakers that prisons have been run on a "shoestring" budget for many years, and lack the resources to train and develop staff.

"We are not a well-staffed agency," Skolnik told a joint Senate-Assembly budget subcommittee, later adding, "We can't add any more workload to these folks and expect those institutions to operate."

Responding to questions, Skolnik said about 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners are released each year, but only six Department of Corrections staffers are assigned to help prisoners adjust to life on the outside.

Gov. Jim Gibbons' recommended budget allocates $547 million to the department over the next two years, up 29 percent from the last biennium. The department is asking for 352 new positions, primarily to staff prison expansion projects.

A report last year by the state Division of Internal Audits found understaffing in the 12,000-inmate state prison system has resulted in higher risks for prisoners, guards and the general public. The system is facing critical overcrowding, Skolnik has said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the budget contained the wrong priorities, and urged lawmakers to instead put more resources toward staffing rehabilitation programs to help prisoners re-enter society.

"It's a lot easier to build a building than it is to build a person," said Joseph Turco, a public advocate for the ACLU.

In addition to its operations budget, the prison system is seeking about $300 million for capital improvement projects over the next two years. That's part of a $1.9 billion long-range plan to add four new prisons, five new conservation camps, and nine housing units by 2015.

The ACLU contends the deeper issue is the state's entire approach to incarceration, and that instead lawmakers should make necessary changes to focus more on rehabilitation and drug treatment, early release of low-risk prisoners and fixing a broken probation system.

"When all these things take effect, there will be a reduction in prisoners. There are a large number of prisoners in the system that don't belong there," Turco said.

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