In the eyes of many, spending $858,539 to build a new execution chamber at the Ely State Prison is a colossal waste of money.
First, the state hasn’t executed anyone since Darrel Mack in April 2006 and no one is scheduled to die for at least two years. Second, the new chamber is designed to kill by lethal injection and there’s currently no source for the drugs which do that in the U.S.
But supporters of the project point out it would accomplish a major goal by removing the final obstacle to turning Nevada State Prison in Carson City into a museum.
The execution chamber and license plate “tag” plant are the only remaining prison operations at NSP, which shut down as a prison in 2012. And the tag plant is scheduled to be relocated to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center this fall.
Deputy Director of Corrections Brian Connett said the construction project is simplified a bit by the fact the new chamber will be in Ely’s administrative building so it will be a remodel more than a construction job.
But he said it will take some time because it will have to go through the Public Works process including selection of an architect, design and then be put out to bid. He said it will take most of the coming two years before the new chamber will be ready for business.
All Nevada executions have been conducted in Carson City since 1903. Before that, they were handled at the county level and some 20 legal executions were known to have been conducted in a variety of places before then.
Glen Whorton, former director of corrections and now head of the Nevada State Prison Preservation Society, said earlier this month the end of prison business at NSP along with the passage of P.K. O’Neill’s AB377 opens the door to turning the institution into a museum, tourist attraction and, hopefully, a movie set.
That law creates three funds: historic, an operating fund for the more modern part of the prison and a third trust for individuals who want to contribute but not to the government.
Getting the tag plant and execution chamber out, Whorton said, “is ultimately going to make the institution more attractive and more accessible.”
The prison, in combination with separate projects to develop the V&T Railroad and the historic Stewart Indian School are key elements in the plan to make Carson City a destination for tourists and history buffs.
NSP began operation as Nevada’s prison the year before statehood. The current execution chamber was built after lawmakers approved gas as the state’s method of killing in 1921. It was first used on Gee Jon in 1924 and last used with gas on Jesse Bishop in 1979.
The chamber was then converted to use lethal injection and, since then, 11 have been put to death by lethal injection there.
Advocates for the future of the prison say the death chamber is one of the potential key attractions at the old prison. It was designed to contain cyanide gas to protect prison workers and the required public witnesses and has been described as looking like something that belongs in a Navy ship or submarine with a thick steel door closed by a large wheel and thick rubber seals on both door and windows.
But Director of Corrections Greg Cox has said for more than four years it probably could never be used again because it isn’t ADA compliant. There’s no elevator to the third floor room and the stairways are narrow without handrails and, in several places, no head clearance for anyone over about 5-8.
Cox also told lawmakers Nevada doesn’t have the drugs to put an inmate to death because they are no longer sold in the U.S. for that purpose.
It was for that reason many lawmakers voted against the project, which passed out of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee by a single vote.
Connett said prison officials need the new chamber, built for lethal injection, “because that’s what the law says now, what the law allows us to do.”
He said drug availability “is not a pressing issue right now but certainly, some time in the future, that will be an issue for us to deal with.”
Opponents of the death penalty say even if an execution was approved in Nevada, it would be delayed while the legality of the injection drugs was debated in court. That is one reason why lawmakers rejected the new chamber in 2013.
The new space would have to include a hospital-style room for the execution itself, separate areas for both witnesses and any attending family of the victim and, most likely, a holding cell area for the inmate for the night before the execution.