Retiring Nevada prisons chief reflects on career

LAS VEGAS - Come Tuesday, Nevada Corrections Department Director Howard Skolnik will no longer have to deal with life and death decisions, shrinking budgets or queries from state lawmakers who have hardly toured prison grounds.

At 66, Skolnik leaves a career that began as a correctional officer at the Ohio Penitentiary 45 years ago, longer than most hardened inmates spend behind bars.

It ends in a position as director he says is rewarded more by what doesn't happen on one's watch - such as stabbings or escapes - than what does.

It's those life and death decisions, such as instructing a warden how to handle an inmate during a dangerous moment, that Skolnik says translates into protecting both the prison system and public.

During his career, prisons evolved from having poorly trained guards and crude methods to quell inmate uprisings to having better trained personnel but intense scrutiny from the courts.

In the 1960s, Skolnik manned a prison office with an emergency button under the desk.

"If I pushed the button, two large inmates came in and beat whoever was in my office, dragged them out," he said. "That button, I'm relatively sure, saved my life one time. But that was not how this business should operate."

Skolnik, who guides a staff of 2,800, was appointed prisons director in February 2007 by Gov. Jim Gibbons after serving nearly 20 years as the department's deputy director for industrial programs and the official prison spokesman.

He's stepping down, he said, because he thinks he would not have been retained by Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval, who takes office next month.

"I've had my battles with the Legislature, and I suspect that this governor coming in has a much more conciliatory attitude toward them than the governor I've worked for," Skolnik said. "And, of course, my responsibility is to support the governor that I worked for."

Gibbons more than appreciates that loyalty. Dan Burns, Gibbons' spokesman, said "the governor believes Howard's performance as head of prisons has been outstanding, especially in these trying economic times."

Under Skolnik, inmates developed a clothing line, fed stray horses, created stained glass and began manufacturing Bighouse Choppers, which he billed as the only outlaw motorcycles made in the U.S. by real outlaws.

But it wasn't until he became prison director that Skolnik was thrust into the spotlight. He inherited a system whose facilities were overcrowded because of the state's rapid population growth, lengthy sentences and high incarceration rates.

Wasting little time trying to convince legislators that the overcrowding endangered an undermanned prison staff - he says the inmate to prison staff ratio is second highest in the nation behind Alabama - Skolnik embarked on an ambitious plan to build prisons and upgrade existing ones.

He succeeded in adding 1,000 beds to the system and got some relief when the prison population began flattening out. That was because of legislation that allowed mostly nonviolent offenders to be released earlier, along with a drop in crime rates.

But the state's economy soured, forcing Skolnik to close a prison in Jean and a conservation camp in Silver Springs.

"All of a sudden my job was to figure out how to run a department with a lot less money than we had," he said.

Some proposals didn't sit well with lawmakers, such as his recommendation to close the antiquated Nevada State Prison in Carson City, part of which was constructed in the 1860s. Despite his arguments the prison is unsafe, it remains open.

The union that represents 550 correctional officers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 441, had called for his resignation because closing the prison would have cost members their jobs. The union's chief of staff, Vishnu Subramaniam, said of Skolnik's departure: "We may not have agreed with him on every decision he made, but there's good in every administrator. Our take is to move forward with a new director. What concerns our members is day-to-day officer staffing."

Skolnik's proposed budget for the next two years includes closing Nevada State Prison, which he said would save $9 million in the first year but cost 109 jobs. But he's unapologetic, saying that he "submitted a budget for the next biennium that should keep everyone safe if it does not get modified significantly."

And his take on the union: "I don't know that they will be sorry to see me leave. On the other hand, I haven't heard of any major celebrations either. I do know that I have literally received hundreds of good luck messages from line officers around the state."

One thing he won't miss is dealing with the Legislature. He says matter-of-factly that most lawmakers have no idea how prisons operate.

"What they need to do, frankly, is spend a month walking a prison yard interacting with the staff and inmates to find out what goes on inside of a prison," Skolnik said. "My worst day was, after 40-plus years of public service, being called a liar by members of the Legislature in a public hearing. The reason I was called a liar is that they have no clue. They do not understand the operation of the facilities."

When it comes to funding, Skolnik said the prison system has been treated as a "stepchild." For example, he points to not having cameras in the cell blocks of the maximum-security Ely State Prison despite budget requests for them. Fire safety is substandard throughout the prison system, he said.

But what rankles Skolnik even more is what he considers micromanaging from above, far beyond what he experienced in Ohio and a lengthy stint in Illinois prisons. By that, he means that he must get approval from the state budget office and the Legislature to shift personnel or perform administrative tasks that he said should be allowed to occur internally to promote efficiency and save money.

"It astounds me that the 200 years of correctional experience that exists in the executive staff of this department, and it's probably a lot more than that, is not adequate to make decisions about what this department ought to do," he said. "I'm exaggerating a little but I couldn't change a garbage can for a case of copy paper without going for approval."

More advice for lawmakers: They need to do a better job of looking at alternative sentencing.

And his advice to his successor, whomever that may be:

"He should spend more time with the legislative leadership than I did. One of the failings I had was not providing enough explanation as to why we were doing what we were doing. The more important thing, though, is to develop a succession plan for this department because 75 percent of our senior staff are retirement eligible.

"If there are significant pay cuts coming out of this legislative session, this department is going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge and experience."

It's difficult, as Skolnik says, to imagine the pressures that go into running a prison system, particularly the life-and-death decisions he has had to make.

With a life expectancy of less than 60 years for the average correctional officer in the U.S., it's little wonder that Skolnik is looking forward to doing something else. He's going to maintain his residence in Las Vegas, but beyond that has no immediate plans.

"I have been in the business almost as long as correctional officers are expected to live," he said. "It seems to me that it's in my self-interest not to subject myself to the level of stress that will no doubt come out of this session."


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