Commentary: Safety is first consideration in proposed prison closure
The latest attempt to close the Nevada State Prison in Carson City is being speciously characterized as a budget issue. Gov. Gibbons argues that corrections officers must be furloughed to meet budgetary constraints, and consequently NSP must be closed to reduce the strain on our already understaffed correctional system.
But while budgetary concerns are part of the challenge of managing our prisons, the issue of public safety must be considered as an equally important part of that challenge. The true issue is whether our state can sustain deeper cuts in our Department of Corrections by furloughing front-line corrections staff and, if we do, what impact that will have on the safety of our communities. The safety issues caused by furloughing front-line corrections officers will not disappear when we close a prison.
This past week the Board of Prison Commissioners, empowered by the Nevada Constitution and Nevada Revised Statutes, stopped the attempted closure of NSP over the objection of the governor and the director of the Department of Corrections. The closure of NSP is not based on some larger policy or plan; instead it is based solely on the need to meet furlough mandates imposed by the governor.
As the DOC director has stated, furloughing corrections staff creates an “untenable and unsafe” situation in our prison system because Nevada currently has fewer corrections staff than almost any state in the nation. No other state, including many of those enduring economic crises, furloughs its front-line corrections officers. Nevada should not either. We simply cannot afford to compromise public safety.
Closing NSP will mean moving hundreds of prisoners to other prisons, which will be operated under the same furlough mandates that the director says create unsafe situations. The state Legislature provided adequate funding for the operation of our prisons, and in the interest of safety provided funding to exempt front-line correctional staff from furloughs. The Legislature also has twice, in bi-partisan fashion, stopped the governor’s attempt to close NSP.
The time will certainly come when NSP will need to be closed, but for now it is operating and serving its basic purpose. At a time when all Nevada families are tightening their belts, the prisoners at NSP can endure living in an outdated facility until the state sufficiently recovers.
As a member of the Board of Prison Commissioners I assure you that we will continue to look for ways to make our system operate at maximum efficiency. But by definition “maximum efficiency” in a prison system means maximum safety for the officers and staff, for the general public, and for the inmates.
• Secretary of State Ross Miller is a member of the Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners.