Nevada town rallies to save prison camp
Diane Perchetti couldn’t pull off the Easter celebration alone. Her to-do list was too lengthy: stack chairs, mop floors and haul out the decorative jail cell from the recent Muckers Ball fundraiser.
She phoned Bob Bottom, who oversees the local minimum-security prison camp. As usual, he sent over the inmates.
In this former boomtown forgotten by much of the state, the small prison is a savior for residents and the cash-strapped town manager. Supervised inmates shovel snowed-in driveways, yank out weeds, clean rain gutters, slash brush and dig graves.
“They do everything but herd cattle,” said Perchetti, 63, who runs the Tonopah Convention Center. “Shoot, they fixed my plumbing a few times.”
So when state officials proposed mothballing the camp to help narrow Nevada’s $3-billion budget gap, residents prepared for battle. They repeatedly car-pooled to the capital -- a 460-mile round trip. To lawmakers and their staff, they handed out save-the-camp pleas written by senior citizens, high school principals, the Salvation Army, students.
If Tonopah, population 2,600, prevails, it will have accomplished something notable in this recession: staving off government cuts with little more than scrappiness.
In recent months, a number of revenue-deficient states, including New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey, have considered closing prisons. Kansas and Michigan have already locked up lockups, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Even communities that once balked at housing prisons are fighting for the jobs and cheap labor they provide. Across the nation, prisoners fix tractors, mow lawns and fish scrap metal from landfills. Their towns -- often remote and economically forlorn -- have staged letter-writing campaigns and rallies on their behalf.
Nevada is saddled with the nation’s largest budget gap by percentage, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some of the budget cuts proposed by Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons target the Nevada Department of Corrections.
The 150-inmate Tonopah camp needs less than $2 million a year, some of which the state Division of Forestry provides. But sitting more than 200 miles from both Las Vegas and Reno, the camp has struggled to hire and retain staff, said Suzanne Pardee, a corrections department spokeswoman.
“If it’s just counting dollars and cents, it doesn’t make sense to keep it open,” said Republican Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea of Eureka, who emerged as one of the camp’s top advocates. “But these communities depend on it in so many ways.”
Tonopah certainly does. Though it touts itself as the “Queen of the Silver Camps,” the town has seen more regal days. The ore discovered in 1900 eventually dried up, and the railroad was dismantled. A modern job provider, the Stealth Fighter plane, was relocated in the 1990s from nearby Nellis Air Force Range to New Mexico.
Now, the town subsists on annual revenue of $750,000. The once-grand Mizpah Hotel is an abandoned stack of stone. Some yards are all car parts and dirt, and on the town’s outskirts, mining equipment rusts near pits big enough to swallow buildings.
Still, longtime residents have few complaints. The median home price is about $78,000, and the night sky is a stargazer’s dream. In fact, before the camp opened in 1990, some folks worried it would shatter the town’s tranquillity.
“I thought a band of criminals were going to be running around,” said Perchetti, who wrote a letter to the local newspaper in opposition. “I’m eating my words now.”
Bottom, the 42-year-old supervisor of the Tonopah facility and two other camps, started here in 1993. He mostly led inmate crews on wildfires around the West, which remains the prisoners’ primary task.
Yet as he moved up the ranks, Bottom realized the inmates could patch up his crumbling hometown. One day he walked into the convention center while Perchetti was shampooing the carpet.
“You know,” he told her, “the prisoners can do that for you.”
The inmates are paid $1 an hour for firefighting and $2.10 a day for other labor. (Their pay costs the town only $8,400 a year.) They’ve built an award-winning replica train engine for the Nevada Day parade and carved miles of trails in the Tonopah Historic Mining Park. When a storm tore off the gift shop roof, the prisoners swooped in with tarps.
At the town’s sandstone library, librarian Carolina Loncar, 77, praised them for tidying her garage before her husband’s funeral.
“They’re good little organizers,” she said. Loncar pointed out the children’s reading nook -- prisoners had installed the white stair-step seating.
A few years back, Marcus Woods, 26, was imprisoned in Tonopah on a robbery conviction. He said there were fights between corrections staff and inmates and occasional food shortages. But working for hours in town made him feel purposeful.
“People would give us hot chocolate and McDonald’s,” he said. “It felt good because everyone who goes to prison isn’t a bad person.”
Woods, who spent about four years behind bars, said the camp also helped prepare him for his job as a fundraising coordinator for a Reno halfway house. “It got me ready to get out and not lay in bed all day,” he said.
Last year, Tonopah leaders got word of the camp’s shaky status. Denise Nelson, the Chamber of Commerce director, had only recently moved from Las Vegas, but she was determined to save it.
“I’ve seen what happens when people sit on their hands and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ ” said Nelson, 55, recalling how her Iowa hometown withered after its slaughterhouse closed.
The e-mails, letters and long drives to hearings -- “No one expected you to show up,” they were told -- apparently are paying off.
Last week, a key legislative panel recommended that the camp remain open. Before townsfolk can declare victory, however, they must wait for a final budget. The legislative session is scheduled to end June 1.
Meanwhile, the inmates keep tidying Tonopah.
On a recent morning, a dozen prisoners in denim shirts and ski caps responded to Perchetti’s note: “Please move jail and clean.”
They carried chairs and wiped stove tops for an hour, their faces blank, their responses limited to “yes” and “no.”
As soon as it finished, the crew was whisked away to its next task: picking up trash in a neighborhood park.