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Hundreds attend decommissioning of Nevada State Prison

CARSON CITY- Retired Correctional Officer Warren Maxim stood by the Nevada State Prison on Friday and remembered Valentine’s Day in 1981 when inmate Patrick McKenna suddenly pointed a gun at his face.

For the next eight hours, then rookie guard Maxim did not know whether he would live or die. Finally McKenna, known as the most dangerous inmate in Nevada, surrendered after seeing a line of Highway Patrol troopers and other police surround the prison.

“He didn’t want to be shot,” Maxim said of McKenna, who is still on death row.

“I stayed on for another 21 years,” Maxim continued. “It never happened again. I gave them respect as men until they showed me otherwise.”

Maxim and dozens of other veteran correctional officers returned to the 150-year-old Nevada State Prison to take a final tour and say good-bye to one of the oldest prisons in the United States. Gov. Brian Sandoval and Corrections Director Greg Cox led ceremonies to formally decommission the prison, long known as “the Max.”

The last of the prison’s 700 inmates were removed in early January, most going to High Desert State Prison near Indian Springs. Cox chose to wait until spring to formally decommission the prison.

More than 500 people showed up at the ceremony and each of them took a brief tour through the shabby, but solidly built facility. Inmates lived two to each cell, which measured 6 feet by 9 feet. Those who caused trouble were thrown in “the cave,” a hole cut in a sandstone quarry.

“I have never seen so many people want to go to prison,” quipped Ron Angelone, one of four former correctional directors to attend the ceremony.

Sandoval and legislators decided last year to close the prison after receiving reports that modernizing it would exceed $29 million. The closure was expected to save the state an estimated $15 million a year.

It costs less to feed and manage inmates in newer prisons. The annual cost per inmate at High Desert is $14,000, compared with $23,000 at Nevada State Prison.

Cox said the future of the prison remains uncertain. There are discussions with state officials about making it a museum, which has happened with closed prisons in other states, or making it a correctional officer training facility. The San Francisco Bay Area’s Alcatraz, referred to as “The Rock,” is the most famous prison used as a tourist attraction, but even Michigan’s Jackson State Prison attracts visitors who want to see the cell of Jack Kevorkian of assisted suicide fame.

For a couple more years, a building on the prison grounds will continue as the state’s sole license plate factory. About 20 minimum security inmates from a conservation camp are trucked in each weekday to work in the factory.

While death row long has been housed at the Ely State Prison, the only execution chamber remains in the Nevada State Prison. Cox said he would use the chamber if an execution is ordered, although Public Works Board officials have stated the facility would not meet federal disability act requirements. The last inmate executed was Daryl Mack in 2006.

Former state archivist Guy Rocha said 54 people were executed at the prison. He told of how the inmates ran their own casino between 1932 and 1967, and of how 29 convicts escaped in 1871. Most of the escapees were killed by a posse near a California lake now known as Convict Lake.

Rocha also mentioned how inmates for decades have helped the state battle fires, including two who died in 1926 while fighting a forest fire near Carson City.

Sandoval laughed as he recounted how Gov. Lewis Bradley had to call out the state militia in March 1873 to remove Lt. Gov. Frank Denver as prison warden. Lieutenant governors until then also served as the prison warden. Denver would not give up the post after the Legislature changed the law and took that power from him.

He quietly left the facility as the militia approached.

The former guards on Friday mostly talked among themselves and told those who inquired that most inmates were OK.

“There were a lot of bad people here, but some were real good people,” former guard Chuck Horn said. “The staff ruled, the inmates didn’t.”

They came not just to say good-bye to the prison, but to once again chat and laugh with their former colleagues.

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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