Escape prompts closure of prison camp in Tonopah


An investigation of a recent escape has triggered the surprise closure of a state prison camp in central Nevada.

Early Wednesday morning, state corrections officers removed all 113 minimum security prisoners from the Tonopah Conservation Camp, where the entire staff has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Howard Skolnik, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, said the camp will remain closed while its 10 employees undergo a refresher course in the department's "basic policies and procedures."

Department spokeswoman Suzanne Pardee said the closure and staff training stems from the Jan. 10 escape of James Paster, a 34-year-old serving time for battery and possession of a stolen vehicle.

Paster was captured by police in Las Vegas on Jan. 17, one week after the walked away from the camp, Pardee said.

The employees and inmates at the camp were given no prior notice of Wednesday's closure because department administrators went there in search of "verification we would not have gotten had we said, 'Here we come,'" Skolnik said.

He would not say what they were trying to verify or offer additional details of the investigation while it is ongoing.

What Skolnik would say is that all of the camp's employees have been "invited" to take part in the training set to begin Monday, meaning no one has been fired as a result of the probe so far.

He said the training would go on "until it's done."

"I'm hoping we get everything done and resolved within 30 days," he said.

The camp is expected to reopen after that with the same inmates and staff members, but the prisoners from Tonopah are being held at other camps around the state for the time being, Skolnik said.

The Tonopah Conservation Camp is actually located about 10 miles outside the Nye County seat, on state Route 376 about 225 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

It is one of nine camps across Nevada used to hold minimum security inmates who serve on work crews and help the Nevada Division of Forestry fight wildfires around the state. The camps typically house "property-crime prisoners," not those convicted of violent or sex-related offenses, Skolnik said.

The Tonopah facility is surrounded by a single, 12-foot fence with no guard towers. "It's not meant to keep people in. It's meant to remind them they're not allowed to leave," Skolnik said.

The camp has been targeted for permanent closure as a cost-cutting move in the past, but Skolnik stressed that the current situation is only temporary. Though this camp has had personnel issues in the past, it will reopen, he said.

"This is not the first time we have had problems in Tonopah," Skolnik said. "I'm confident that while I'm director, it will be the last."

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

 

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