The final half-dozen inmates loaded up their possessions Monday and moved out of the old Nevada State Prison in Carson City, with at least one of them making it clear he would rather stay.
“I’m going back to a regular prison,” said William Tungate, 45. “Freedom is a lot better here.”
Warden Greg Smith said a lot of the inmates like it at NSP because they feel as if they have more space and freedom to move around.
Tungate, a trusty scheduled for parole in July, said “it was nice” where he was in the prison. The space once occupied by 11 inmates, he said, got down to just six by the end.
The prison, which opened in 1862, was one of the oldest operating in the U.S. The only older Western prison that Smith knows of is San Quentin in California.
Those last NSP inmates didn’t have far to go, however. They were moved to Warm Springs Prison, just a double row of chain-link fence away from the upper yard of NSP.
Smith is warden not only of NSP, but also Warm Springs and the Reno Restitution Center.
Although NSP no longer houses inmates, its license plate plant still is operating. In addition, Smith said, crews will maintain the execution chamber in case another execution is ordered. So inmate crews will be at the prison nearly every day for some time to come.
“We’ve got lots to do here,” he said. “It’s kind of like cleaning out your garage after 150 years.”
There’s a lot of history at the old prison, where 43 prisoners were put to death.
“Right now, we’ve got third-generation correctional officers here,” Smith said.
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 were 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 because of the rickety metal stairs used to access the chamber.
Officials said a judge could bar executions from being carried out if witnesses were 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 pending, and the death chamber will remain at NSP for now.
Smith said that although skiers and water utilities may not like this winter’s unusually warm, dry weather, he’s thankful for it.
“Moving everybody out in two feet of snow would have been horrible,” Smith said.
And as for having to shut down the old steam boilers in freezing weather, “the pipes would have frozen before we could drain them.”
The shutdown process at NSP was already under way Monday. For the first time in probably 100 years, there was no steam coming out of the stack atop the prison.
When the closure process started a year ago, NSP was home to more than 750 inmates. Corrections chief Cox and Smith have been moving them to other prisons as space became available, while also reassigning correctional staff to vacancies in other institutions.
As of last week, there had been no layoffs and none of the corrections staff had been forced to move to another part of the state to keep their jobs.
Deputy Director for Operations Steve Suwe said, however, that there will probably be a few officers who retire and a few layoffs now. He expects some staffers to choose to be laid off rather than move; when positions open up in the Carson City area, they will be at the top of the list to be rehired.
Prison officials say closing the prison will save the state about $15 million in the current two-year budget cycle because it costs less to feed and manage inmates at newer prisons.
Officials estimated bringing the prison up to code would cost $30 million.
The Department of Corrections says a “decommissioning” ceremony is being planned for March.
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.