Silver Tailings: Nevada State Prison Decommissioned

The last inmates left in January 2012, and now the 150-year-old Nevada State Prison is officially removed from operation. The decommissioning ceremony was held on the prison grounds in Carson City and was the first time the public had the opportunity to walk the grounds and see the cell blocks that at one time housed up to 800 inmates.

There’s little argument about the place the old prison holds in Nevada history and in the crowd were many who had strong connections with the place.  Denver Dickerson’s grandfather served twice as its warden, dying in 1925 on the grounds in what was the warden’s residence.

“I just felt since it played such an important part in our family’s history, I should be here,” Dickerson told KOLO-TV News.

The prison was established in 1862 by the Nevada Territorial Legislature at the site of the Warm Springs Hotel, located east of Carson City in Nevada Territory. The legislature had been leasing the hotel from Abraham Curry and using the prison quarry to provide stone material for the Nevada State Capitol.

The territorial legislature acquired the hotel along with 20 acres of land from Curry, in 1864, who was appointed the first warden of the prison. In October of that year, Nevada became a state and the newly written constitution established that the Lieutenant Governor of Nevada also functioned as the ex-officio warden of the prison.

A blaze destroyed the original building in 1867.  Four-years later, a major portion of the prison burned down and was rebuilt with inmate labor and stone from the on-site quarry.

Lieutenant Governor Frank Denver was seriously injured in 1871 during a prison break involving 27 inmates. A year later, Denver refused to concede the prison to Pressly C. Hyman, who had been appointed the new warden under legislation and Governor Lewis R. Bradley sent troops in 1873 to force Denver to surrender the post.

As odd as it might sound today — with the legalization of gaming in Nevada — the prison allowed inmates to gamble in what was called the Bull Pen. Officials set up the casino in 1932, closing it 25-years later in 1967.

The prison was expanded in 1964 and operated as a maximum security facility until 1989, when Ely State Prison was opened to fulfill that function. The prison still houses Nevada’s execution chamber, though no executions are imminent, and the state’s license plate factory will remain there for now.

Closing the prison was debated for years until the last inmates were transferred in January. Officials claimed bringing the aging building up to code would have cost $30 million, and moving inmates to newer, more efficient penitentiaries is expected to save half that amount over the two-year budget cycle.

No decision has been made on what will become of the building.

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