With the passage of Assembly Bill 377, the historic Nevada State Prison is on its way to becoming a museum, tourist attraction and, potentially, even a movie set.
Glen Whorton, who heads the NSP preservation society, said the legislation signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval gives the society a say in NSP’s future. It creates three different funds. The first is historic, the second for operation and maintenance of the more modern part of the prison.
Then he said there’s a separate trust fund for individuals who want to help financially but don’t want to contribute to a government agency.
“This would be specifically preservation oriented and administered by the museum board,” he said.
The goal is to open NSP to the world as a museum tracing the history of corrections in Nevada back to the 1860s all the way forward to the day when it finally shut down just three years ago.
“We really see a fully featured museum that would have media presentations, exhibits,” he said. “We want to develop a library. We want to do what’s right.”
Whorton, who retired as director of corrections after a 30-year career, has been one of the driving forces to preserve and convert the old prison into a museum/tourist venue.
The old prison operated from 1864, before Nevada was a state, until 2012. For most of those years, it was not only the state’s maximum security prison but the home of its death chamber.
The chamber was constructed originally as a gas chamber with thick rubber seals on the doors but windows for the execution witnesses and press to watch. The last prisoner executed by gas was Jesse Bishop in 1979. Since then, the chamber has seen a number of executions by lethal injection.
But it wasn’t until this legislative session the final pieces of its history as a prison were scheduled for termination. The “tag plant” that produces license plates and the execution chamber remain at NSP. But the license plate factory is moving out to a new facility and the 2015 Legislature appropriated $858,000 to build a new death chamber at Ely State Prison where all the state’s death row inmates are housed.
That decision, Whorton said, “is ultimately going to make the institution more attractive and more accessible.”
He said when the Department of Corrections is finally out of NSP, it’s finally going to be possible to collect artifacts and begin developing NSP into a museum.
AB377 was introduced by Carson City Republican P.K. O’Neill who said the preservation society’s plans have tremendous potential for the capital.
“This is going to bring a lot to our city,” he said. “It is a strange type of tourist attraction but it’s 150 years of history.”
“It ran the gamut from old-style corrections to the present time,” Whorton said.
As for those who doubt NSP’s tourist potential, he said: “All they have to do is look at examples of prison institutions that have been turned into tourist attractions.”
He cited Alcatraz as a prime example.
Whorton said the preservation society will have some say in a number of things including potential renovations to restore historic features of the prison such as opening up the original “triple sally port that was put in there in the 1940s.”
The “sally port” is the strictly controlled entry and exit tunnel for inmates, controlling their movements with multiple locked gates.
“When I went to work there (in the 1970s) that’s how you accessed the prison — through triple gates that went right through the building,” said Whorton.
In addition to donations, he said they are looking for any pieces of NSP history descendants or survivors of both inmates and corrections employees can provide — especially old photographs.
“We try to collect every picture, every photo we can of the institution,” he said.
There are also other features that make NSP unique, including the prehistoric footprints of long-extinct animals like giant sloths and mammoths found in the sandstone that makes up the bedrock beneath the prison.
The stone quarried from the prison is equally important to Nevada history because it provided not only stone to build the prison but the blocks that built the state capital, original attorney general’s office, Ormsby County Courthouse and the original state library building.
Then there’s the potential for attacting movie makers.
He said everyone from architects and historians to filmmakers are “overwhelmed by the visual nature of the institution.”
The core of NSP consists of stone buildings that are up to and even more than 100 years old.
“It absolutely hits you in the face that it’s an old-style institution,” he said.
Whorton said now that the enabling legislation is in place, it’s up to the society and NSP’s advocates to make it all happen.
“Now that we have the bill, we’ve got to step up and move forward,” he said.