ails are not particularly pleasant places to visit.
And shocking as this might seem, I’ve been on both sides of the glass — thankfully for not too long and for nothing too serious. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about the time I ran from the border patrol in Laredo when I was 19 — do that today and they’ll shoot first and ask questions later.
As such, I sort of shirked my public duties and avoided visiting the new $17 million Nye County Detention Center in Pahrump when it opened.
I just figured my time would come — probably caught in the cross hairs of some disgruntled western lawman with an axe to grind, targeting the local newspaper editor on some trumped-up charge or another. She told me she was 32!
I figured I’d get a private tour sooner or later.
But then all of these rumblings started surfacing, a lawsuit even. Shoddy construction, under-staffing, unsafe environment for inmates and guards were among the allegations being lobbed. I guess I had to see for myself.
And I just loathe jails. But public duty and all, I set up a tour.
First of all, this new jail is enormous. It’s a cavern of criminal warehousing. You can’t tell from the outside, but it probably takes more than 10 or 15 minutes to walk briskly from one side to the other. Add stairs and doors and a trip to the bubble — where they watch all the pods, open and close doors and monitor video — and it could wind the average deputy all that walking. The sheriff’s office’s new fitness program really just needs to be a regimen of jail work, that should do the trick for the more rounded peace keepers on the force. I could name names but don’t wish to make a return trip so soon.
The facility is impressive. Compared to the rusty tin can death trap that was the old jail, it’s a freaking Maserati of hoosegows. It’s so top-shelf, as a matter of fact, that a little birdie told me the county is planning another facility just like it next door — two gigantic Pahrump jails, housing as many as 500 inmates. Tongue wagging should now commence!
But one group of folks isn’t impressed and they offer compelling arguments for why this new jail never should’ve opened so soon after it was completed.
The Nye County Law Enforcement Association, a union that represents sheriff’s deputies below management rank, has filed multiple grievances, even a court complaint, to bring to light what it contends are unsafe working conditions. Some of the juiciest allegations include that the jail was opened without any fire escape plan or even training on what to do in the event of a fire. At the smaller jail, it probably wasn’t a big issue. But at the gigantisaurus jail, it is.
Another claim is that the lieutenant in charge of the new facility, our good friend Jack Hennigan, has never even been certified to work in a detention facility.
Union guys tell me that’s one of the issues they keep raising about the staffing levels that Sheriff Tony DeMeo deems adequate — the sheriff is counting deputies who aren’t even certified to work in a detention facility as part of the group of people that supposedly make up the new staff. We hear another administrator at the jail is a volunteer reserve sergeant who can come and go as he pleases and yet is part of the sheriff’s official numbers representing “adequate staffing” as well.
Add to this quandary the kinks of opening a new facility — a broken gate that’s supposed to be brand spanking new, doors opening on their own, minor leaks, longtime volunteer Ben Gulley being trapped for 72 hours in the walls behind the female inmate dormitory okay, I just made that last part up. See, I’m no angel — and the sheriff, the county even, could have some serious headaches on their hands. At least that’s what the union guys say.
On management’s side, frankly, the union is batting zero with its complaints. It has lost each time it has tried to bring these issues to light. Fire plan? One was conjured up in a jiffy after the issue was raised. Training on the new plan? Not so much.
Judge Robert Lane dismissed NCLEA’s lawsuit. County Manager Pam Webster looked at the staffing grievances and sided with DeMeo. An effort to get the issues in front of county commissioners Tuesday backfired with District Attorney Brian Kunzi making a forceful he seemed kind of mad to me case that the union’s allegations are overblown at best and totally false at worst — which particularly bothers me the most because if the allegations are totally false, and the person making them also happens to work as a detective investigating major crimes in this community, wouldn’t it be a big, neon red flag if that same guy, whose truthful testimony the same DA depends upon in court, was running around lying all over the place? One high-ranking NCSO official quickly dodged that question when posed to him this week.
I kind of have a problem with the whole thing. I’m torn, too. One side of me says there are always growing pains when a county this size and this poor attempts something so ambitious as a Maserati, gigantasaurus jail when it had a rusty tuna can for a lock-up previously. So maybe the union should ease up a little bit. The kinks will work themselves out.
The other side of me says the union is spot on for bringing up these issues; it has a duty to protect its members. And I swear, there’s something fishy about the way the sheriff and other top officials have reacted to the union’s efforts — calling the union members liars is certainly one problem, but DeMeo almost seemed to exhibit delusional behavior when asked directly about some of the jail problems by the press. Delusions and guns and badges don’t mix in my opinion.
I think before I make up my mind on the matter, I will take Kunzi’s advice — this is a union grievance that requires both sides to mediate away from the public spotlight.
If the union is right, the county will be told to act and act quickly to fix the issues. And we will address this again at that time. If the union is full of it, then it just laid a big ‘ol goose egg that will really hurt it the next time it tries to negotiate anything with county management, and that hurts its members.