Last inmates leave aging Nevada State Prison

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Posted: Jan 09, 2012 4:20 PM
Last inmates leave aging Nevada State Prison

The last inmates packed up their duffel bags Monday and were transferred from Nevada State Prison in Carson City, a 150-year-old penitentiary that houses Nevada's execution chamber, license plate factory and once boasted its own gambling joint.

Most of the inmates that once numbered around 800 have already been moved to other prisons. A handful of minimum-security prisoners were the last ones to leave Monday, when they were shuttled into a van at a back door, then driven to the main gates where their belongings, packed in a few boxes and duffel bags, awaited them.

Once those were loaded, they were taken next door to Warm Springs Correctional Center.

William Tungate, 45, serving time for possession of stolen property, had mixed feelings about leaving.

"Where we were at was nice," he said. "... Our freedom was a lot better here."

Minimum-security inmates were housed in a dormitory-type setting, though more serious offenders were in cells.

NSP predates Nevada's statehood, having been established in 1862 when territorial officials purchased the Warm Springs Hotel and 20 acres on the east side of town.

When Nevada legalized gambling in 1932, inmates got to run their own casino, the "NSP Bull Pen," which operated until 1967.

But despite its colorful history, the prison's structural problems are many. During a Board of Prisons meeting last March, public works officials said five buildings were out of service because the housing units are either too small or utilities no longer worked.

Plumbing in some units required guards to leave cell doors open so inmates could use toilets down the hall. Leaking and corroded pipes were common, and tunnels had to be hand dug beneath some units to access underground utilities.

"Obviously digging tunnels in a prison is not something you want to do," Department of Corrections Director Greg Cox said at the time.

And while Nevada's only execution chamber is located at NSP, even that is not up to snuff, failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements because of the rickety, metal stairs used to access the chamber.

Officials said a judge could bar executions from being carried out if witnesses are unable to attend.

NSP was the site of the nation's first execution in a gas chamber, when Gee Jon was put to death in 1924 for killing a man in Mina. In 1979, Jesse Bishop was the last person executed by gas before laws were changed requiring death sentences by lethal injection.

In all, 32 men were executed in the gas chamber, and 11 more have since been killed by lethal injection, the last one in 2006.

No executions are currently pending, and the death chamber will remain at NSP for now.

Since 1928 every license plate in Nevada has been made at NSP, and that operation will continue during the day while correctional officials decide whether to move the factory elsewhere.

Officials estimated bringing the prison up to code would cost $30 million. Moving the inmates to new, better designed prisons is intended to save about $15 million over a two-year budget cycle.

The Department of Corrections says a "decommissioning" ceremony is being planned for March.

What will become of the prison itself is unknown, but Warden Greg Smith said he hopes it can be preserved as part of Nevada's history.

He'd like to restore the home on the prison grounds where he warden lived until the middle of the last century.

Inmate labor will be used to keep the property tidy.

"I think it's our responsibility to maintain it," he said.