NDOC: No timeline set to reopen prison camp closed for understaffing

NDOC: No timeline set to reopen prison camp closed for understaffing
The temporarily closed Ely Conservation Camp. (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections)

by April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current

ELY–Staffing problems continue to plague Ely State Prison, further delaying the reopening of a nearby conservation camp that was shuttered last year.

Ely Conservation Camp, located roughly 40 miles south of the maximum-security prison, is a minimum-security facility where inmates work on projects for the state departments of wildlife and forestry, including on fire crews. The conservation camp was quietly closed on July 10, 2020. The decision was defended by Nevada Department of Corrections officials as necessary because of severe understaffing issues but nevertheless drew ire from lawmakers who were not immediately informed of the facility’s closure.

Members of the Interim Finance Committee originally demanded NDOC draft and stick to a plan to reopen the conservation camp within months, but pressure softened as the pandemic continued to impact operations at the prison and the state at large.

Bill Gittere, deputy director of operations at NDOC, told lawmakers on the IFC Thursday that reopening the conservation camp hinges on increasing staff levels at Ely State Prison, which actually has fewer employees today than it did in July 2020 when the conservation camp was closed and its employees reassigned to the prison.

Gittere said the camp can safely reopen once the prison has 195 custody staff.

The prison currently has 143.

“The entire nation has grappled with the problem of hiring new personnel during the pandemic,” he said. “The Nevada Department of Corrections, and especially the very rural Ely State Prison, are not exceptions. There are significant salary and benefits, working conditions and rural living challenges that are very hard to overcome.”

Gittere did not suggest the vaccine mandate was having any impact on staffing at the prison. He said that as of this week 83.1% of the staff at Ely State Prison are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 “and more are expected  to become fully vaccinated in the coming weeks.”

As state employees, prison staff are subject to the state’s employee vaccine mandate and are required to receive the vaccine or be potentially subject to termination. Religious and medical exemptions are permitted.

Gittere said the department is seeing “modest successes” rehiring former officers and recruiting veterans leaving active duty. But he offered no timeline on when NDOC expects to have hired the more than 50 additional staff it needs.

Republican State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, who represents the county where the prison and conservation camp are located, expressed disappointment in Thursday’s update.

“I was hoping you were going to give me some good news,” he said, addressing the representatives from NDOC. “It sounds like more of the same.”

He continued, “We were lucky this year. We didn’t really have fire season in eastern Nevada, but that might not hold. I hope we can get (the conservation camp) open. The people in White Pine County need it but clearly we don’t have the people to put in place.”

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