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January 23, 2018

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Closed prison — even solitary confinement cave — may find new life as museum


Cathleen Allison / AP

A corrections officer talks with inmates in the cellhouse at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City.

Nevada State Prison

Nevada State Prison is seen Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, in Carson City. Launch slideshow »

Visitors may some day be able to see for themselves what life was like in one of the nation's oldest prisons.

The Nevada State Prison was the first in the nation to start executions with lethal gas and probably one of the first — if not the only — to permit casino-type gambling for inmates. The 145-year old prison closed in May and now a preservation group is working to turn it into a museum.

“It could be a heck of a tourist draw,” says Myron Carpenter, head of the nonprofit Nevada State Prison Preservation Society, which wants to lease the property from the state for $1 a year for 99 years.

Assemblyman Pete Livermore, R-Carson City, has asked for a bill to be drawn for the 2013 Legislature to assist the society's efforts.

According to the Department of Corrections, the state spent $80,000 in 1862 for the Warm Springs Hotel and 20 acres in Carson City for the prison. Fire destroyed the first prison in 1867; it was replaced by the present building, which was built using rocks from an on-site quarry.

With the beginning of legal gaming in Nevada in 1932, the “NSP Bull Pen” was started, permitting inmates to gamble. That ended in 1967.

Nevada in 1921 was the first state to approve execution by lethal gas; the first execution was in 1924, according to state records. The state changed the law in 1983 for executions to be carried out by lethal injection but they were still held in the gas chamber.

With the closure of the state prison, plans are underway to move the death chamber to the maximum security prison in Ely.

The society has acquired nonprofit status and has applied to the National Register of Historic Places to list the prison as a historical site.

Among its other attractions is an old cave used for solitary confinement, says Carpenter. A small opening permitted meals to be lowered to the prisoners.

Former guards are volunteering to serve as guides and “they have lots of stories to tell,” he says.

Carpenter, a retired high school teacher in adjacent Douglas County, says he used to take his students on a tour of the prison as “a learning experience.”

Plans were launched to merely preserve the prison, he says, but it has snowballed into creating a museum and tourist attraction.

The kitchen and dining room are in good shape and could be converted to a restaurant, Carpenter says.

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