Prison chief revises forecast downward

CARSON CITY — Nevada’s prisons have 234 more inmates than anticipated, but Corrections Director Howard Skolnik said Tuesday he can return money to the state because he expects little growth in the coming year.

State Budget Director Andrew Clinger said the Gibbons administration aims to take $73 million in general fund revenue earmarked for prison construction and use it to help reduce the state’s $900 million plus budget shortfall.

Gov. Jim Gibbons and key legislators are expected to announce late today where they will cut $340 million in state spending. That is on top of the $565 million that was cut in January.

Legislators passed a $6.8 billion two-year budget plan in June, but tax revenues have fallen 8.7 percent short of expectations because of the economic downturn.

The administration wants to save about $180 million by delaying legislatively approved construction projects where actual work has not begun.

Skolnik said that includes delaying two housing units at the High Desert State Prison just south of Indian Springs, a step that would save $53.4 million, and postponing the planning for additional housing at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs, a savings of $4.6 million. He also has proposed not to construct a $4.8 million transition center at the women’s prison in North Las Vegas.

Other savings have resulted from bids for prison construction coming in at less than the budgeted costs, Clinger said.

The 2007 Legislature approved a $332 million prison construction plan, in part because of estimates that the prison population would climb by more than 8,000 during the next 10 years.

Legislators also backed a bill to increase good time credits that could be earned by inmates convicted of less serious crimes in a move to release more than 1,000 inmates early.

However, that program has not produced immediate results, in part because legislators also increased the workloads of the state Parole Board by requiring hearings with inmates present.

Previously many hearings were conducted without the inmates.

Nonetheless, Skolnik said, the system has been adding only a handful of additional inmates per month for most of the past year. At present, the system has an in-house population of 13,013, according to Skolnik.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “The (Clark County) jail count is way down. Arrests are down. If the pattern holds, we will be in fine shape.”

Skolnik plans to close the 500-bed Southern Nevada Correctional Center in Jean by July, a step that could save the state $25 million. Prisoners and staff will be transferred to other prisons in Southern Nevada.

He is trying to lease the prison to another law enforcement agency for $3 million a year. However, a move to lease it to the Metropolitan Police Department to relieve pressure at the Clark County Detention Center might fail because additional jail space might not be needed, according to the director.

But Skolnik said space for an additional 960 inmates soon will be available with the completion of two state prison construction projects. Two, 240-bed housing units will open at the Southern Desert Correctional Center, as well as a 300-bed unit at the women’s prison.

Skolnik and Clinger discussed changes in prison plans after a Board of Examiners meeting in which the Corrections Department received $253,328 to cover costs of the 234 inmates above the budgeted projections.

Lorraine Bagwell, deputy director of support services for the prison system, said that money represents the annual $1,082 cost of clothing and food for each inmate.

She said the prison budgets $2.17 per day for food for inmates. A 2003 study showed that then it cost $8.50 a day to feed the average American. At that time, California and Florida were under fire because they were spending $2.45 and $2.32 respectively a day on food for each inmate.

It actually costs more than $20,000 a year to house and care for inmates in Nevada state prisons.

But Bagwell said that includes salaries of correctional officers and utilities. Her agency is not hiring extra officers to handle the growth in the inmate population.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.

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