Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006 | 12:32 p.m.
Thirty women prisoners at the state facility in North Las Vegas soon will be sleeping on cots in a former storage area because there is nowhere else to put them, a symptom of the overcrowding that is currently plaguing the entire state corrections system.
The pressure is most acute in the women's prisons. "We are about four to six weeks from completely full up" - meaning so full that another woman prisoner absolutely could not be accommodated, Howard Skolnik, deputy director of the state Corrections Department, said.
The designed capacities of the women's facilities, which also include camps in Silver Springs and Jean, were surpassed some time ago. Now, even their emergency capacities - the number of prisoners who can reasonably and safely be housed with the available space and staff - have been surpassed, Skolnik said.
On Thursday, the North Las Vegas prison was 56 inmates over its emergency capacity of 496. The additional women were being housed in beds not intended for that purpose, such as infirmary or lockdown beds, or by putting extra cots in cells, Skolnik said.
The problem, he said, is that the projections that the state uses to budget for prison building underestimated the growth in Nevada's prison population. The estimates, prepared by a consultant for the state Department of Administration before each legislative session, were low in both 2003 and 2005.
That has left the Corrections Department scrambling.
Thirty additional women soon will be housed on cots being installed in a mostly vacant space, adjacent to the prison gymnasium, part of which is currently used for storage. But about 60 women enter the prison each month, Skolnik said.
No immediate relief is in sight. In August, the Southern Nevada Correctional Center in Jean, built in 1978 but closed in 2000, will reopen with beds for 600 male inmates. The facility has been designated for convicts 25 or younger.
But no new women's beds are scheduled to come on line for almost three years. In December 2008, a new building on the North Las Vegas campus will add more than 400 women's beds. The addition is currently at the architectural planning stage, Skolnik said.
When the Jean men's prison opens in August, it may free up space for women to be housed in a wing of another men's facility, Skolnik said. "Right now, we just want to make it to August without hurting (prison) programs," he said.
Prison populations have been exploding nationwide in recent years. Experts trace the increases to legislatures enacting more and stricter mandatory minimum prison sentence laws, judges imposing longer sentences and insufficient resources to keep ex-cons from committing more crimes and returning to prison.
Last month, prison critics applauded the opening of a 400-bed transitional facility in Clark County where inmates can serve the last three months of their sentences while getting jobs and taking classes. Officials hope Casa Grande will reduce the high proportion of Nevada ex-cons who currently end up back in prison within three years: 70 percent.
Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn said the state is not currently doing a good job of making sure that the right people are in prison.
"Every judge wants to look like they're tough on crime," he said. "Since we have elected judges, no one wants to risk someone on probation committing another crime," which a judge's opponent could use against him in an election.
"So you have people committing nonviolent crimes like theft, and judges are putting them in prison," he added.
Kohn noted that the "three strikes law" passed in California in the early 1980s has forced that state to build about 50 prisons in the last 20 years, contributing to the state's multibillion-dollar deficit.
"To put people in prison who are not violent is an incredible waste of taxpayer monies," he said.
Prison officials say each inmate bed costs about $125,000 to build and $20,000 per year to operate. The average Nevada inmate stays in prison for four years.
The political popularity of appearing tough on crime is also what has led the Nevada Legislature to pass some of the nation's severest mandatory minimum sentence laws, said Gary Peck, Nevada's American Civil Liberties Union executive director.
"We have some of the most draconian laws in the country," Peck said. "Many judges would like to have more flexibility," but mandatory minimums don't allow it.
Peck said a "broken parole and probation system" also was a piece of the puzzle, with an unduly harsh Parole Board keeping people in prison longer than their sentences require.
All these factors are for the most part national trends, said David Jones, president of the Washington-based National Criminal Justice Association. Many people are being given heavy sentences for drug-related crimes, but in most cases, their incarceration neither makes the public safer nor fixes the root cause - their drug problem.
"When you incarcerate a serial killer, your crime rate goes down - the public is safer," Jones said. "When you incarcerate a drug trafficker, someone else just steps in and takes the job. They don't take their crime to prison with them."
Solutions must come at all points in the system, he said: preventive services that identify and help children at risk of heading down the wrong path; flexible and reasonable sentences; prisons that work to rehabilitate inmates, and programs that help inmates return to freedom but not to crime.
The reason that the Nevada women's prisons are feeling more pressure from crowding than the men's facilities is that more women are committing crimes, and a greater proportion of those crimes are violent, Skolnik said.
That, too, is a national trend, Jones said. "Women are becoming more brazen in some ways - just as bold as men," he said.
It's a dubious victory for gender equality, he said. "I think it's because a lot of the stereotypes have been broken down," he said.
As bad as Nevada's situation is, it could be worse. Many state prison systems are so full that they contract with other states to house their inmates, usually at a high cost. In Idaho last month, a state legislator proposed having prison inmates sleep in shifts to stem the rising costs of shipping them to other states.
Nevada housed some prisoners out-of-state in the late 1990s, but the Corrections Department today views outsourcing inmates as a last resort, Skolnik said.
"It's disruptive, it interferes with family contact, and we try to develop programming that's specific to Nevada inmates," he said. "Programming in another state's prisons may not be appropriate."
Molly Ball can be reached at 259-8814 or at [email protected]