The close custody unit housing inmates with disciplinary problems at Nevada State Prison was shut down this week, raising union concerns the department is trying to close the Carson City prison a step at a time.
Both lawmakers and the Board of Prison Commissioners have made it clear they think the Director of Corrections needs permission to shut down any prison. Director Greg Cox has proposed closing the historic prison on Fifth Street to save more than $16 million over the biennium. He says it is the least-efficient prison in the system, primarily because of its age.
Cox confirmed Wednesday that Unit 12, the so-called "segregation unit" housing 35 mostly problem inmates facing disciplinary issues was closed down Tuesday. Cox said a dozen of those inmates were transferred to the Ely maximum security prison and the rest shipped to Northern Nevada Correctional Center's segregation unit or returned to the prison general population at NNCC.
Cox said he informed legislative staff as well as the members of the prison commission - the governor, attorney general and secretary of state - of his decision.
He said he was told that would be OK as long as he committed to open Building 13 at NSP as a segregation unit if lawmakers decide not to close NSP.
The reason for closing Unit 12, Cox said, is that it is one of the most inefficient housing units in the prison system, requiring 15 staff to manage just 35 inmates.
"No other building has that few inmates for that many staff," Cox said.
Kevin Ranft of the American Federation of Federal, State and Municipal Employees said he thinks Cox is violating the rules by closing the unit.
"The Board of Prison Commissioners said stop arbitrarily closing down unit by unit," he said. "We feel this is in conflict with that order."
Ranft said a major concern of the union is whether inmates from segregation who shouldn't be are being returned to the general population, which could pose a hazard both for staff and other inmates.
Closing NSP would result in the loss of nearly 200 jobs in Carson City but Cox has said given plenty of lead time, he could reduce the actual layoffs to 30 or less. The more than 600 inmates would be moved to other institutions - primarily High Desert in Southern Nevada which has two new units capable of holding nearly all of those prisoners.
The difference in manpower needed to manage the inmates in those two institutions is dramatic. While staffing at NSP is nearly 200, the same 600 inmates can be managed with just 59 staff at High Desert.
The legislative money committees are scheduled to take up the issue of whether to close NSP April 29.