Nevada State Prison's Future Hangs in Balance

Welcome to the nation's proving grounds of death. Nevada State Prison completed the first gas execution. Its first victims were reportedly cats. The facility also used an automatic firing squad machine. That's right, a machine that would automatically put its victims to death with bullets. It was only used once.

"I guess nobody liked it," says Steve Suwe Public Information Officer for the Nevada Department of Corrections. "I don't know the whole story."

For some reason, morbid details of death and imprisonment that happened daily over 150 years are intriguing to most of us and we want to know more. Why? Suwe has thought a little about that.

The answer is easy he says, "Turn on the TV and watch all these lock-up shows. There is something mysterious and exciting about prisons in general and so when you get one with historical value, the rock quarries, the prison breaks, I think people like to hear these stories. People ask me all the time, 'what really goes on in there.' It is a society within a society and no one knows what goes on in there. And then the inmates get out and tell these stories that are hard to believe because there is a lot of embellishment. It is a social mystery that intrigues people. There is an element of excitement. An element of danger. That is what sells news right?"

And there is a lot of interest. He conducts regular tours of Nevada State Prison, but that could all end in March or April when it runs out of money to operate. The last inmates packed their duffel bags and left on Monday, becoming the last in the historical record to leave and that history is in danger of fading. Suwe is worried.

"It has been an every day part of Carson City for 150 years. So this is kind of big. There are many people that don't want the memory to fade away and turn to dust. It is an issue of who has the dollars to put up."

He is pretty busy closing up shop. But has heard about private citizens groups stepping up in some places like Pennsylvania to open up old prisons for public tours to satisfy that morbid curiosity. "But it doesn't happen overnight," he said, pointing out that it can take up to a decade to get a place back open.

He says he doesn't even know where to start with an effort like that here. For now, he is looking at the near future: The closing ceremony.

"I get excited thinking about it. It is a momentous event in the history of the state, Carson City and Department of Corrections. I think there has to be some kind of honor paid. That is my personal opinion."

The decommissioning ceremony could include tours by former corrections staff and photo ops. But even that hangs in the balance. "That is kind of my vision and that is what I presented. No one said "no" and no one said "yes."

For now the storied walls carved from stone by the prisoners hands, the cave where prisoners were kept and the death chambers may all be in the throws of the dying breaths. The ghosts rumored to roam there will be left to howl alone for the first time.

But as with many legends, with death comes its landing in the history books. A new book is set for release March 21, called Nevada State Prison. There is also a Facebook page and blog on Word Press where people are encouraged to share. While the future of the site hangs in the balance, one thing is for sure, the legend will keep feeding the imaginations outside, for the mind is no prison.


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