Las Vegas Sun

March 23, 2019

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Board temporarily halts Nevada State Prison closure

Secretary of state warns Gibbons not to “act like petulant 15-year-old”

CARSON CITY -- A divided Board of State Prison Commissioners temporarily stopped the closure of Nevada State Prison in Carson City on Wednesday, even after the director painted a grim picture of the state's correction system and said he needed staff and inmates transferred to other facilities.

Gov. Jim Gibbons said he would still give the department authority to transfer prisoners out of the facility for security reasons.

This prompted Secretary of State Ross Miller to warn against an end-run around the board and told the governor not to "act like a petulant 15-year-old."

Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said they wanted to see the detailed plan on how the 700-bed prison would be closed. The board will meet again July 13. Miller and Masto told Corrections Director Howard Skolnik they should have been brought in to make the policy decision to close the prison.

It's unclear how Gibbons will react. Gibbons has maintained that the director of the Department of Corrections answers to the governor, and not to the board.

Gibbons said if it was a matter of safety, prisoners would be transferred out. "I'm not going to stand by and let the security of the officers and community be put in danger," he said.

Gibbons, who makes up the third member of the board, voted against the delay. He also questioned how much authority the board has over the Department of Corrections. "We're looking at our legal options," he said after the meeting.

Skolnik said directors and governors have unilaterally made decisions to close prisons in the past.

A deputy attorney general said statute gives the board authority over the state prison system.

Skolnik described a prison system that is already at 85 percent of what an audit said should be minimum staffing. He said violent incidents have gone up nearly 50 percent. As the system closes gyms and programs for inmates to save money, violent incidents would continue to increase. "As you take things away, prisoners have less to lose," Skolnik said.

The latest stress on the system are furloughs set to begin July 1. The Department of Corrections has, until now, been exempt from unpaid days off because of safety concerns.

Skolnik said existing problems will be exacerbated unless he has the ability to move staff and inmates at Nevada State Prison to other, more secure facilities.

In the past week and a half, about 200 prisoners have been removed from Nevada State Prison.

Skolnik said he could institute the furloughs, but he'll have to use additional overtime money.

Gibbons agreed to come back in the interim with a detailed plan for the closure. But, he said, "I'm still going to ask Director Skolnik to do what's necessary to ensure the safety of the staff and community."

Miller recognized the giant loophole that could provide.

"Whether or not there's a gray area, and whether or not there's an opportunity to play political games with that or act like a petulant 15-year-old is up in the air," Miller said.

Miller also had a tense exchange with Skolnik when Miller suggested that the plan to close the prison was "secret." Skolnik said they would not be publicly releasing details about inmate movements or staffing that could affect security, but he said he would provide the information to the Prison Commissioners.

About 30 corrections officers from Nevada State Prison filled the Capitol.

Those who spoke opposed closing the prison. But some officers from Southern Nevada testified in favor of giving Skolnik the authority to close the prison and shift the resources.

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