Hearing set to block closure of state prison

Secretary of State Ross Miller has called for an emergency meeting of the Board of Prison Commissioners next Wednesday to prevent Gov. Jim Gibbons from shutting down Nevada State Prison.

"Thus far the plan to close NSP has been justified with absolutely no documentation showing it a sound plan," he said. "I think it's fiscally irresponsible and is going to jeopardize public safety."

The prison commissioners, Miller said, have the authority to block the governor's executive order under the constitutional provisions giving that panel the power to oversee operation of the prison system. That board consists of the governor, Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who has backed Miller on the issue in the past.

"There has been nothing presented at a board of prisons meeting in support of closing NSP," said Miller.

When the latest move to shut down the 100-plus year old prison on 5th Street was announced Thursday, Director of Corrections Howard Skolnik said he has legal counsel's support that where inmates are housed is his decision, not the Legislature's or the prison commission's.

He said the officers at NSP are needed to fill staffing gaps at other area prisons once mandatory day-a-month furloughs begin in July.

Lynn Hettrick, deputy chief of staff to Gibbons, backed Skolnik on that point: "We believe he has the right to run the prison system the way he needs to."

Miller said closing NSP has also been rejected more than once by the Nevada Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, both D-Las Vegas, issued a statement objecting to "the sudden closure of this prison without a plan for transferring and housing the prisoners." They said the closure doesn't make sense, especially when there is a chance the system will run out of inmate beds even with NSP open.

The old prison holds up to 700 inmates, and Skolnik said Thursday his plan is to shut it down over the course of the next few months, moving inmates to other institutions and moving the prison's staff to Northern Nevada Correctional Center, Warm Springs - both in Carson City - or Lovelock.

He said those staff positions are crucial to inmate and staff safety since furloughs will further stretch an already dangerously thin staffing ratio. Without moving those positions, he said, he doesn't believe his officers can safely take the furloughs.

Union officials - who have pushed legislative Democrats to block the closure plan for more than two years - also protested. Gene Columbus of the Nevada Corrections Association charged that the governor's order was a surprise attack which would jeopardize the governor's responsibility to protect the public. Ron Bratsch of the northern branch of the correctional officers association said lawmakers voted not to close it and that they and the prison commission have the final say, not the prison director.

Miller said historically, the prison commissioners have given the director discretion to run the prison but that closing an entire prison is unprecedented.

Skolnik said that's not the case, that directors have three times shut down Southern Desert Correctional Center and that he shut Silver Springs Conservation Camp - all without legislative or commission permission and with no challenges to that authority.

Miller and Gibbons have been butting heads for several years over the commission's role in prison system management. Gibbons contends the commission is "a policy board," with no role in the department's budget.

He said what Miller is attempting to do is "interjecting this board into the day to day administration of the prisons."

Gibbons said in announcing the closure NSP costs $4,000-$6,000 more per inmate each year to operate than the system's newest prisons. No source for that calculation was provided.

The closure would affect more than 130 officers working at NSP but, according to Skolnik, most of those jobs would be preserved and kept in Carson City by moving them to NNCC or Warm Springs. He said the goal is to close NSP without layoffs or forced relocations of staff.


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