By Mark Waite
Sources confirm that county commissioners are discussing the possibility of closing the Tonopah jail in an effort to save money and ease staffing difficulties at the new Pahrump jail.
Rumors of the potential closure surfaced a few weeks ago. At least one county commissioner confirmed to the Pahrump Valley Times that an item regarding the idea may be on the commissioners’ next meeting agenda.
The new $17 million Pahrump jail opened in October and can house 224 inmates. It’s only about half full at present. The Tonopah jail was used to house long-term inmates from Pahrump when the old Pahrump jail was overcrowded and in poor condition. It can house 88 inmates.
When asked for a comment, County Manager Pam Webster would say only the next county commission agenda will be posted Thursday.
“I’ve heard a rumor. I haven’t been provided anything other than a rumor,” County Commission Chairman Butch Borasky said. He figures as chairman of the board someone would give him a heads up about a pending agenda item.
Commissioners Lorinda Wichman and Donna Cox said they haven’t heard anything about the Tonopah jail closure being on the next commission agenda. Commissioner Dan Schinhofen referred inquiries to the county manager. He also repeated her response.
“The agenda won’t be posted until Thursday. Sorry, got no other comments right now,” Schinhofen said.
Commissioner Frank Carbone said, “I know there’s been a little talk about it. As far as I know, it’ll probably be on the agenda.”
Cox said she hasn’t researched any such proposal yet.
“I’d have to have a lot more information about this before I make my decision,” she said. “Nye County is such a big area. What are they going to do if they pick up a drunk? Drive him all the way to Pahrump?”
Sheriff Tony DeMeo said he heard the rumor weeks ago but figured county supervisors would have approached him with the matter before moving forward with any public discussion.
“I had heard the same things through the rumor mill going back three weeks ago but I consider it rumor because I would’ve thought a county commissioner or county manager would’ve come to the person responsible for arresting these individuals.”
DeMeo said he considers it a rumor like talk of splitting the county. Whoever is proposing the closure hasn’t given it much thought, he said.
“This is the issue that would present a problem: They still have District Court in Tonopah. Also we make arrests in Tonopah,” the sheriff said. “The other thing is what’s going to happen when NHP Nevada Highway Patrol comes to me in Tonopah, which they’re required to do, and say, ‘I want you to house this inmate?’ What are you going to do with that? They can’t put them in Beatty, because Beatty is a holding facility and it does not have deputy coverage for those people in Beatty.”
It’s 165 miles from Pahrump to Tonopah, then the William Beko Justice Facility in Tonopah is a few miles past downtown. DeMeo said a remote community like Gabbs is another 97 miles from Tonopah.
“It would add overtime on the sheriff’s office in addition to that is the increased danger of actually transporting inmates up and down the highway as much as anything else, there’s been quite a few fatalities on that highway. It really doesn’t make any kind of sense,” DeMeo said.
But while the sheriff said he has good communication with the county manager and with other commissioners — despite their request for the attorney general to prosecute him for overspending his budget by $1 million — it wouldn’t surprise him to see it on the agenda because county communication isn’t good. The county commission asked the attorney general’s office to prosecute the sheriff in October but Nye County still hasn’t handed the case over to the AG’s office, spokesman Jennifer Lopez said Tuesday.
When there was discussion about building the new Pahrump jail three years ago, the question was raised about closing the Tonopah jail, DeMeo said. That would cut down on the number of detention staff, but the sheriff said if there were only a few inmates, his department would still have to have deputies to cover the shift.
DeMeo conceded the sheriff’s department is trying to keep the inmate population down in Tonopah because their manpower issues are more severe due to early retirement buyouts. The jail actually is only designed to hold 44 inmates, but former Sheriff Wade Lieseke Jr. began using double bunks, he said.
“Hopefully they have a meeting with the judges involved, the sheriffs that are involved and have some input from the community,” DeMeo said.
David Boruchowitz, president of the Nye County Law Enforcement Association NCLEA , said he inquired about the rumor and has received no confirmation of a plan to close the Tonopah jail.
“I haven’t heard anything official. I’ve heard the scuttlebutt,” Boruchowitz said.
NCLEA filed a number of grievances before the new Pahrump detention center opened last fall. A court filing even sought to keep the facility from opening until staffing levels were increased. The court complaint was eventually dismissed and the jail opened, much to the chagrin of union members. Sources say the new jail continues to grapple with a host of minor bugs and staffing issues.
Any closure of the Tonopah facility would probably ease staffing problems, but might also open a new can of worms for NCSO administrators. If there is serious consideration given to the proposal, there should be talks with his union, Boruchowitz said.
“I should think there should be some communication, hopefully before they do anything. We should chit-chat,” he said. “That’s a huge move for someone to just uproot their families.”
The old Pahrump jail was designed to hold only 36 inmates, but a 2006 report by Kitchell and Associates said the jail housed as many as 53 inmates, and often more. Half of the inmates at the Tonopah jail were from Pahrump, the Kitchell study reported then — it added that a new Pahrump jail could free up 25 beds in Tonopah.
The American Civil Liberties Union had long complained about the old Pahrump jail. The organization has since moved onto a new target now that Pahrump has its new facility.
The group recently threatened to sue Esmeralda County over conditions of its jail in Goldfield. In a warning letter dated Dec. 7, 2012, the ACLU said it was writing in regard to numerous unconstitutional problems at the Goldfield Jail, which are well documented. They add county commissioners have been put on notice multiple times through Sheriff Ken Elgan, Sergeant Tony Philips, complaints of inmates and ACLU visits and letters.
The ACLU asked the Esmeralda County Commission to formulate a concrete plan to remedy the conditions at the Goldfield jail within 30 days.
“If you fail to implement a course of action, we will have to move forward and pursue legal remedies. You possess the discretion to choose the remedies, whether outsourcing or remedying the conditions at the jail,” the letter states, signed by Staci Pratt, legal director of the ACLU of Nevada.
The warning letter states: “Current constitutional violations include failure to comply with ADA standards, lack of access to adequate medical care, lack of access to legal materials, inadequate supervision of inmates and failure to separate by sight and sound female and male inmates.”
The ACLU sent a letter to Nye County in March 2009 warning conditions at the old Pahrump jail were unconstitutional, they said Nye County had been on notice of substandard conditions at the jail since 2003. Construction on the new Pahrump jail began in June 2011.