CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers signaled approval on Thursday for a major consolidation of its prison firefighting camps, signifying gaps in firefighting coverage for a state forestry division that relies heavily on labor from a declining prison population.
Three rural prison firefighting camps would get scaled back to essentially a skeleton security crew if the budget receives final approval next week.
In Nevada, certain incarcerated people are eligible for wildland firefighting at a rate of $24 per day. The closing of the firefighting camps comes as the number of eligible prisoners dropped in recent years from about 740 to 300, officials said Thursday. According to a recent lawsuit from the ACLU of Nevada alleging harsh conditions at a conservation camp, prison firefighters made up about 30% of the state Division of Forestry’s fire-response capacity in 2021.
The Nevada Division of Forestry will restructure vacant positions into full-time firefighter positions to cover gaps that the conservation camps leave, The Nevada Independent reported. The state’s Department of Corrections staffs the camps while the Division of Forestry owns them. The camps that will essentially be shuttered include Ely Conservation Camp, Tonopah Conservation Camp and Humboldt Conservation Camp.
State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, a Republican from rural Eureka, previously said he was concerned about the Tonopah camp closing due to its central location throughout the state, which gives it relative proximity to other rural areas.
Several lawmakers and advocates have described using prison labor for about $1 per hour as inhumane. Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford previously said the practice reminded him of “convict leasing,” where states and companies made money from arresting mostly Black men and then leasing them to private railways, mines and plantations in the Reconstruction Era. The Division of Forestry has described the voluntary program as a way to give incarcerated people hands-on training and experience that they could not otherwise get.
Lawmakers also signaled approval to potentially revive a recently shuttered prison in northern Nevada in a budget proposal from the state’s Department of Corrections that will go up for final approval next week. The former Warm Springs Correctional Facility will essentially be on standby for either a revival or a remake into a firefighting camp if the state’s prison population and staffing numbers rise again, spokesperson Bill Quenga said in an interview. A skeleton maintenance and security crew will keep the prison in shape in case it’s needed again.
“We’ll keep it warm,” Quenga said. “We’ll have maintenance people over there flushing the toilets, cleaning. If you don’t, the ball valves and all the toilets and all the units, they will just deteriorate.”
The Nevada Division of Forestry did not respond to a request for comment on the closures.
The reshuffling of the state prison system’s resources came at Thursday’s budget-approval vote from a joint committee of state Assembly and Senate members. Warm Springs Correctional Facility in Carson City closed in November as a safety, staffing and cost-cutting measure. The prison population was transferred across town to Northern Nevada Correctional Center.
The department attributed the decline in prison population in-part to a sweeping 2019 criminal justice reform law that lowered certain criminal thresholds. Statewide staffing shortages have also hit Nevada prisons especially hard, affecting programing, recreation time and day-to-day operations across the state’s facilities, Department of Corrections director James Dzurenda has said.
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow him on Twitter: @gabestern326.