After 150 years of harboring convicts, the Nevada State Prison was officially taken out of service Friday with a ceremony that brought together dignitaries, former wardens, prison directors and hundreds of curious folk who wanted say goodbye to the old building and get a chance to see behind the razor-wired compound for the first time.
“This is the closing of a facility,” said former Corrections Director Glen Whorton, noting the prison by its nature “is not exactly a monument to success.”
“I’m not really nostalgic about these stones and bars,” Whorton said, calling the prison an “old tired facility.”
“I’m nostalgic about the people.”
Yet there is something romantic about the sandstone outpost that was established on the capital city’s east side since 1862, two years before Nevada’s statehood, and that remains a big part of the city’s colorful history — from the great prison breakout in the 1800s to the inmate casino dubbed the “NSP Bull Pen,” which operated from the 1930s to 1967.
In 1871, 27 inmates broke out of the prison and Lt. Gov. Frank Denver, who also served as warden, was seriously wounded. Two years later, it was Denver who caused a ruckus when he refused to leave his post as warden, and the state militia was called in to remove him by force if necessary.
“The story of the Nevada State Prison has always been about fighting the good fight,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval. “We owe every employee who ever worked here the thanks of a grateful state.”
Howard Skolnik, the former prison director who led the effort to shutter the prison, called its demise bittersweet, noting its deep ties to the state’s history. Rock from the quarry on the prison grounds was used to build the state Capitol and the former U.S. Mint, now the Nevada State Museum.
“It’s a sad ending but in my perspective it wasn’t a safe facility,” Skolnik said.
Closing the prison was debated for years until the last inmates were transferred in January. Some cell blocks lacked running water, and barred cell doors were left open at night so inmates to walk down the hall to use a toilet. There were also tunnels — not exactly a welcome feature in a penitentiary — that were dug to keep aging plumbing in working order.
Officials estimate bringing the prison up to code would have cost $30 million. Shutting it down is expected to save about $7 million a year.
NSP’s years in service is surpassed only by San Quintin State Prison in California, which has been in operation since 1852.
NSP still houses Nevada’s execution chamber, though no executions are imminent. In all, 43 inmates were killed in the prison death chamber — 32 men were executed in the gas chamber and 11 were killed by lethal injection. A total of 55 executions have been held on the prison grounds since 1905, when state law first required death sentences to be carried out there.
Friday was the first time the public had the opportunity to walk the grounds and see the cell blocks that at one time housed up to 800 inmates. In the courtyard, visitors snatched up T-shirts, coffee cups, specialty plates and baseball caps commemorating the prison once known as “The Max.”
Skolnik and Robert Bayer, another former director, took a reporter for a tour, pointing out the basketball courts paid for by actor Tom Selleck after parts of the 1989 moving “An Innocent Man” were filmed there.
Across the way is “The Hole,” a cordoned off cave surrounded by fencing where inmates were once sent as punishment. Bayer pointed out a shaft from the ceiling, where guards on the roof would lower a “honey pot” for prisoners to relieve themselves. In later years, the underground bunker was used as a classroom.
No decision has been made on what will become of the prison. Whatever its fate, parts of it are already scattered hither and yon.
A piece of prison bar is included on every “Big House Chopper” — a prison industry program where inmates build custom motorcycles at Southern Desert Correctional Center outside Las Vegas.