Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nevada's Prison Problem: It's Not What You Think

One of the nation's oldest state prisons is the 148 year-old Nevada State Prison at Carson City. The prison requires three times as many guard per inmate as a modern prison. The prison remains operational in spite of having sufficient bed-space in other facilities to easily house Carson City's 800 inmates.

The state doesn't need Carson City Prison. Governor Jim Gibbons doesn't want Carson City Prison. The Department of Corrections suggested that closing Carson City Prison will save Nevada taxpayers $12 million per year.

Nevada has a $900 million budget deficit, yet Carson City Prison won't be torn down or moth-balled or phased out. Why? The political pressure applied by the corrections officers union. The union argued that state employees have sacrificed enough through earlier budget cuts. The community is dependent on the 136 jobs that Carson City Prison provides. According to the USA Today, Carson city's unemployment rate is 12.7-percent, more than double the pre-recession unemployment rate of 5.6-percent.

Apparently, what's good for the state is not good for Carson City and for the time being Carson City is winning.

My Take

In the last years of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency he warned of the dangers of the burgeoning "military industrial complex." Communities became so dependent on military production and military bases that closing bases or ending defense contracts became a political hot-potato. Communities and their elected leaders lobbied hard to keep bases open and defense contracts coming to local manufacturers.

The "prison industrial complex" is the product of a 705-percent increase in prison population over the last 38 years. Communities have become so dependent on the employment and revenue provided by prisons that the prison industrial complex is headed in the same direction as the military industrial complex.

Nevada created the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission to explore cost cutting measures across the board in state government. The commission strongly recommended closing Carson City Prison. Government leaders know that Carson City Prison should be closed, but buckled to local pressure to keep an obsolete, unneeded prison. Nevada is a clear example of the tail waging the dog.

Look for states like Texas and California to create commissions specifically for purposes of closing state prisons. Ongoing budget shortfalls have brought about innovative, and at times expedient, ways to reduce prison population. At some point prisons will need to be closed with the resulting loss of much needed jobs. At that point, battle-lines will be drawn and the political theater will begin.

Lobbyists will be hired, citizen groups will be organized and lawmakers will raise their finger to see which way the political winds are blowing. Efficiency and best practices will take a back seat to political influence. The long and wasteful process utilized by the federal government to close military bases will be used by state governments to close unneeded prisons.

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