CARSON CITY -- Department of Corrections Director Howard Skolnik warned legislators Thursday that violence could break out in state prisons starting in July, when he will have fewer correctional officers on duty because of mandatory furloughs.
"We are sitting on a powder keg the way things are going," Skolnik told the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee. "I just can't tell you when the fuse will be lit."
Skolnik said two unprovoked attacks on correctional officers have occurred in recent weeks at Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs, where staff was limited. He had refused to authorize overtime because of the state's budget shortfall. The unprovoked attacks were the first he could remember.
In an effort to keep spending down, Skolnik said, he reduced visitation by 22 days at prisons in a recent, six-week period and left prison towers unattended on eight days. He said the staff shortage is the worst he has seen since he started working in prisons in 1965.
Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, stopped Skolnik from making further comments on the potential for prison violence.
She said the proper funding of prisons is an issue that must be considered at the legislative session that begins in February. Mathews chaired the meeting of the Interim Finance Committee.
During the meeting, Corrections Department officials said they will have a $2.5 million shortfall in expected revenue because few nonprison jobs are available for inmates to perform at a time when Nevada has high unemployment. Some inmates hold Prison Industries jobs, while others work at restitution centers.
In addition, the lack of wildland fires last year meant that fewer inmates were hired to fight fires.
Skolnik said he will have a 4.6 percent reduction in staff starting in July because of the decision by the Legislature to require all employees to take an unpaid furlough day off each month. Only Alabama has a lower staff-to-inmate ratio, he said.
Most state agencies were required to put their employees on monthly furloughs last year. Prison officers were granted exemptions from the requirement, and those exemptions cost the state $4 million.
Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, asked Skolnik why he had not implemented a 12-hour-work-day plan that legislators approved during the special session in February. She said that plan could have saved the Corrections Department money.
Under the plan, correctional officers would work 12-hour days for three days one week and for four days the next.
Skolnik said the proposal, backed by correctional officers, would have cost the state additional money. Every two weeks, officers would work 84 hours, not 80 hours as under the current work schedule.
That means they would be paid for four extra hours, he said.
"That is not what we were told," McClain responded.
Skolnik said the Legislature could have saved $20 million if it had agreed to his recommendation in February to close the 19th century Nevada State Prison in Carson City.
Legislators refused to close the old prison during the special session and during the 2009 legislative session.
The closure plan, backed by Gov. Jim Gibbons, called for laying off 140 prison workers and sending the 750 inmates to other prisons.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.