Locked but still loaded with history
The 150-year-old Nevada State Prison sits silent, vacant now that the last medium security inmates are gone.
“It’s like we just drove through the Bermuda Triangle,” says Associate Warden Traves Roberts as he took Nevada Appeal staffers on a tour Friday. “All the people are gone but the equipment’s still here. Ever see that TV program, Life After People?”
The steel and barred doors that once confined more than 850 inmates are now wide open.
The 2011 Legislature finally agreed to shut down NSP to save money. With some buildings nearing 100 years old, it was just too inefficient compared with new designs. Closing it will save the state an estimated $15 million.
But NSP has an undeniable charm that those newer institutions don’t have. As Roberts put it: “One thing about NSP is you worked at a real prison. You see all these other correctional centers, they look like campuses. Here it’s all steel and bars.”
With the power turned off in most of the institution, it’s also dark in those cellblocks with just a bit of light coming in through the rare windows. Despite the fact the boilers were shut down a week ago, the oldest cellblocks are still fairly warm, shielded from the outside cold by massive 18-inch thick sandstone walls.
One part of the prison still in use is the so-called “tag plant,” where Nevada’s license plates have been manufactured since 1928. But that is in the upper yard, not the lower yard, which is surrounded by NSP’s oldest buildings.
The walls and rooftops are a maze of wires, conduit and piping. Rusting catwalks that allowed officers to get from one building to the next sway slightly as you walk across.
“Our main maintenance guy calls it Franken-prison,” he said.
Atop the corners of the buildings surrounding the yard are several towers that allow the officers to watch the inmates 30 feet below.
“When this was built, the thought process was to manage their movement with shotguns on the roof,” said Roberts. “We still find at NSP inmates respond better to shotguns. They’re less likely to get into fights if there are guns above.”
A sign still hanging in the culinary unit identifies the last meal served at NSP: Fish sticks.
One wall of the lower yard is the sandstone wall left after blocks were quarried to build not only the old prison units but the state Capitol, attorney general’s original offices and Jack’s Bar, among others. At the base of that wall are two gates made of flat-steel strips in a cross-hatch pattern – prison doors dating to the 1800s. Called “the caves,” they were originally used as disciplinary cells for inmates. But Roberts said they’ve also been used as offices and for storage.
At the opposite corner of the old yard on the top floor is the execution chamber, which is the only part of the oldest part of NSP that will be maintained. The last execution was Daryl Mack, put to death by injection in April 2006.
“We’re about due for another one,” said Roberts.
The chamber, with a thick steel door that seals on a rubber gasket, was designed as a gas chamber. In the observation room on the opposite side from the door are three thick windows for witnesses to the execution. The windows on the two other sides are one-way mirrors. The victim’s next of kin can watch through one if they wish. The other is one-way to protect the identity of the technicians administering the injection.
Behind the chamber are the two “last night” cells where the condemned awaited their time.
“This is a hard, cold place to do your last time,” said Roberts.
The chamber was last used as a gas chamber in October 1979, when Jesse Bishop was put to death – one of the first executions after the Supreme Court overturned its ban on death sentences. Bishop, a murderer, bent down as the gas rose from the bucket between his feet, took a deep breath and shrugged as if to say it wasn’t so bad.
Roberts said that after Bishop was dead, they turned on the vent fan to clear the cyanide gas from the chamber, and the wind blew it directly at the guard tower on the northeast corner of the lower yard.
“We almost executed two that night,” said Roberts.
Nevada was the first state to authorize the use of gas to execute inmates in 1921. The first inmate to die by gas was Gee Jon, convicted of murder in a tong war, who was put to death in February 1924.
Now executions are by injection.
The prison casino is one longtime feature that most aren’t aware of. It opened in 1932 after Nevada legalized casino gambling and didn’t close until 1967. One of its last inmate managers was Mustang Ranch brothel operator Joe Conforte, who was serving time for attempted extortion. Conforte is a fugitive from federal tax charges living in Brazil.
Another former inmate was Ross Brymer, the man who shot and killed Argentine heavyweight boxer Oscar Bonavena outside Mustang Ranch.
NSP was opened in 1862 after the state paid Carson City founder Abe Curry $80,000 for 20 acres of land including the Warm Springs Hotel. The springs are still warm and home to numerous ducks that don’t have to fly south for the winter because of the 100 degree water.
The original buildings burned a few years later. Other than the caves, the only structure dating to the 1800s is a pump house in front of the main entrance. Most of the old buildings date to the 1920s.
Next to the prison is the two-story warden’s house. Warden Greg Smith has said he is working to completely restore the old house because of its historical significance. One mystery, however, is why one of the basement rooms in the house has a barred door.
There is still one room in the old prison that is securely locked with very few keys out there: the original prison library. After one of the legal volumes disappeared from the warden’s desk, an investigation revealed that leather-bound law books from the 1800s are very valuable to collectors.
There have been numerous escapes from NSP over the years. Nearly all escapees were caught. One of the more embarrassing incidents was when a one-legged inmate hopped the fence and fled on foot. Another escapee was killed when he hid in a garbage truck, apparently unaware that the practice was to compact the garbage after dumping by driving over it several times either with the truck or a bulldozer at the city dump.
The biggest escape occurred in September 1871, when 29 inmates overpowered their guards and broke into the prison armory. In the gunbattle that followed, Warden Frank Denver was wounded.
In all, 18 inmates were killed or rearrested. Two were later hanged for a murder committed while out.
NSP may be empty, but there will still be inmates from Stewart Conservation Camp there every day. In addition to the tag plant, Roberts said, there will be maintenance crews, inmates moving equipment from culinary and other parts of the prison and clean-up crews there for a long time to come.
“I still can’t believe it’s closed,” Roberts said.
• To view a gallery of more than 100 photos taken by award-winning photo-journalist Shannon Litz during the prison tour, go to nevadaappeal.com/photos.
• You can also check out video.