Closure of Ely prison draws ire from legislators

Ely Conservation Camp
The temporarily closed Ely Conservation Camp. (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections)

Lawmakers on Thursday grilled Nevada Department of Corrections staff over its abrupt and quiet closure of Ely Conservation Camp in July.

NDOC Director Charlie Daniels and top staff went before the Interim Finance Committee to request $10.5 million for hepatitis-C treatment — part of a consent decree reached after inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the state. Instead, lawmakers demanded details on the events that led to the closure of the minimum-security rural prison facility and questioned whether NDOC had overstepped its authority by closing the facility.

Ely Conservation Camp closed July 10.

According to Daniels, one day prior, on July 9, an inmate at the camp was stabbed by five other inmates and had to be life-lined out for medical attention. That incident, combined with chronic understaffing at Ely State Prison, the maximum-security facility located 31 miles away from the minimum-security camp, prompted the closure.

Daniels said the closure of Ely Conservation Camp is considered temporary, but he could not provide lawmakers with any timeline for when it might reopen. He noted the closure was lasting longer than NDOC originally anticipated.

The director stood by his decision, describing the closure as a matter of “life or death” that was promoted by the warden saying he could not safely manage the facility. Nine staff from the conservation camp were moved to the state prison to work and inmates were moved to other facilities.

“I have a duty and an obligation to provide safe and humane conditions,” added Daniels. “I did not have any further options.”

Ely Conservation Camp is one of nine such facilities in Nevada. These minimum-security prisons are operated in conjunction with the Division of Forestry and house crews of inmates that work on fire suppression and provide skilled labor. The Ely camp has a capacity of 150 inmates, according to the NDOC website. An Ely Times article from mid-August reported the closure affected approximately 120 inmates. In that article, an NDOC public information officer attributed the closure to staffing needs at the state prison.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson emphasized that nobody was questioning the need to prioritize the safety of staff or inmates.

“But there is a process,” he said. “That process wasn’t followed.”

When asked to cite what legal authority he used to directly close the camp, Daniels cited a subsection of Nevada Revised Statute 209.131 that states the director of NDOC shall “take proper measures to protect the health and safety of the staff and offenders in the institutions and facilities of the Department.”

Lawmakers questioned that interpretation and criticized NDOC for failing to bring the Legislature into the loop. Frierson noted that two special legislative sessions and multiple emergency interim finance committees meetings have been held since the conservation camp was closed.

“We accidentally found out about this,” he added.

“We all have staffing issues. Can you imagine if every state department decided to shut down offices because they didn’t have the staffing to do their job?”

Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno said it sounded like NDOC had no intention of ever bringing up the issue to lawmakers.

“That should have happened from your office back in July,” she told Daniels. “We’re sitting here in October.”

A statement from the governor’s office, which was read during the meeting, said the governor’s office shares lawmakers “concerns about the lack of notification from the Nevada Department of Corrections on the temporary closure of the Ely Conservation Camp. Upon notification to this office, we immediately made it abundantly clear to the correction’s director that we must be consulted in advance of any decision being made regarding major program changes, especially those that impact constituents and other state agencies.

The governor’s office statement also said the governor on Sept. 23 requested a full report on NDOC’s plan to reopen the camp “in the next 60 days.”

It concluded, “We have also made it clear that any further discussions or proposals from the agency regarding the future of the conservation camp must go thorough the appropriate process and full consideration of the governor and the Legislature.”

Chair Maggie Carlton also pressed NDOC staff for details on whether money allocated by the Legislature for Ely Conservation Camp was being used by other facilities after the transfer.

NDOC Deputy Director of Support Services John Borrowman insisted no money had been moved improperly. He said the only financial transaction related to the facilities involved perishable food items, which the state prison essentially purchased from the conservation camp. He described such transactions as commonplace and said it was logged using an accounting practice called a journal voucher.

“Nothing shady going on,” added Borrowman.

Carlton questioned that assessment too, countering that experience has shown when funds are transferred using journal vouchers “there’s usually something else going on.”

“I have serious concerns,” she added.

State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, who represents White Pine County where the Ely prisons are located, told his peers he was informed about the conservation camp closure in July and had conversations with NDOC staff and the chair of the White Pine County Commission regarding concerns. The Ely Conservation Camp inmates were working on labor projects that had to be halted.

Goicoechea added that he didn’t realize the issue had risen to the occasion of wider attention by lawmakers because the closure is considered temporary: “I have to say, it wasn’t done in a vacuum.”

He added that he wasn’t aware “the fiscal side wasn’t being followed up.”

Daniels told lawmakers NDOC has already submitted plans to the governor to reclassify Ely State Prison as medium security rather than maximum security, thereby reducing the staffing needs at that facility. If reclassified, more than 700 maximum security inmates would be transferred to High Desert State Prison in Clark County. Daniels and Goicoechea said those plan were already being discussed before the conservation camp was abruptly closed.

NDOC Chief of Human Resources Christina Leather said an “extreme lack of affordable housing” and lack of urban amenities like stores has led to chronic understaffing issues at both Ely prison facilities as well as Pioche Conservation Camp.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.