Ely State Prison faces labor shortage

Ross Johnson photo The entrance to Ely State Prison on March 10.

Ross Johnson photo
The entrance to Ely State Prison on March 10.

Amid a state-declared critical labor shortage, Ely State Prison opened its doors to the media for the first time in at least 20 years. The Nevada Board of Examiners voted at its March 8 meeting in Carson City to declare the critical need position, which allows rural prisons such as Ely to address chronic staffing issues by hiring retired public employees without any change to their pension deal.

“There’s a huge shortage,” Warden Renee Baker said.

Baker earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati and started as a probation officer in Ohio. Later, she moved to Las Vegas and began work as a Nevada Department of Corrections case worker.

“I did inmate classifications and made sure they were in the correct institutions,” Baker said. “I did reviews, parole boards, education. I made sure they were appropriately housed.”

Baker transferred to Ely in 2007, promoting to associate warden under Warden E. K. McDaniel in 2009. She became warden in 2011 when Gov. Brian Sandoval named McDaniel interim director. She also administers three surrounding correctional conservation camps: Ely, Pioche and Wells.

It was a quiet day inside the prison walls. A few inmates met with their visitors, who wait at least two months before their visit is approved. The yards stood empty. Kitchen and laundry inmates went busily about their work. One approached Baker with a concern about a message he had previously sent her, and left reassured. Members of the black-clad Correctional Emergency Response Team made their way between housing units to conduct routine cell searches.

“They’re actually pretty quiet today,” Baker said as she entered the disciplinary segregation unit.

Ely State Prison opened in 1989 and is the state’s designated maximum security facility. It currently houses 1,102 inmates, including 82 on death row. The state last executed a prisoner, Daryl Linnie Mack, in 2006. Mack, convicted of the murders of two Reno women, died via lethal injection at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, which closed in 2012. The current plan is to remodel an existing Ely prison administrative building into an execution chamber, or build a new one. About a dozen death row inmates mingled in their dayroom, while two exercised in their recreational area.

A fully staffed Ely State Prison requires 277 correctional officers. Baker declined to elaborate on her specific shortage. The prison competes with the surrounding mines for employees, as well as the draw of Las Vegas. She also hires for arguably the hardest job in the world.

“We want permanent staff,” she said. “We’d love to get more locals.”

The prison holds a large economic and political influence in the area.

“Ely Mayor Melody Van Camp talked me into recycling,” Baker said. “So we’re still working on getting that started.”

Privileged inmates knit hats, scarves and blankets with donated yarn that are in turn donated back to the community. Baker also worked with the state division of child and family services to sponsor holiday gifts for half a dozen local low-income children. The prison will field a team of correctional officers and staff to run in this summer’s Relay for Life in Ely.

“I want the community to know there is a lot of good we do,” Baker said.

The prison hosts its own correctional academy, and this year’s class graduates March 18.

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  1. WouldNeverReturn says:

    Perhaps if they cleaned house and sent certain supervisors down the road, employees would stay. ESP is a toxic environment…and has been for years!

  2. This comment has been removed due to the use of profanity.

  3. This is what happens when you cut employees pay and benefits costs more in the long run while also compromising security and opening the doors for more litigation.

    • Never Return says:

      Employees have always been a disposable commodity at ESP. The administration forgets how badly all staff are needed for a smooth operating prison. It will never be like the old days. No matter when you worked there, the old days always seemed better. The old days of Messick, Scheel, Rowell, Neagle, Falge, Sedlacek and even Neven. Those were the days when common sense was respected and used. Now it is all about statistics and political correctness. The staffs safety is more important than political correctness. I pray all staff stay safe!!

      • Great team they were. Good ol days are fading and the “new era” of millennial snowflakes in charge. However, we can look back and say; Glad I was a part of such group of close knit Officers. IT’s all over. It’s (PC) like an infection without antibiotics to kill it, as, it’s full steam ahead with the “new era” of culture. History has shown what happens to such culture’s. Glad I am on the down end of one of the “greatest” ever lived in this nation. Good luck Warden.

  4. This comment has been removed due to the use of profanity.

  5. The State should do an audit of former employees who quit in the past few years. Get an idea why people don’t stay and work from there. Between the turnover rate and overtime for ex employees who are maxed out this will continue to cost the state at least hundreds of thousands until they fix the problem. Better things for the State to spend money on then this.

  6. Jeff Peeler says:

    Been there done that:
    They don’t want to spend money for cheap housing next to the prison on State property. The rental property in Ely is controlled in large by a few rich families. Also the persistent pressure by a few to keep other businesses out of town so they can limit your choices to shop. This is counter productive. These people have no concept how to grow a city. I personally have actually help grow a city by getting a Walgreens put in Island Lake, Illinois. Other businesses grew around the Walgreens, everybody profited by getting more people into town.

  7. donna shootme says:

    well if ely hired ADULTS instead of the child like people they have now who like to play keep away with things like the showers food medication phone then maybe you could keep real grown people but no yall rather hire little boys to play guards i think all people who work in jails and prisons get some sort of mental test every 6 months

  8. BelieveinKarma says:

    Nevada should clean house; but seeing how politics plays a big part and those in power control what goes on in ESP, I don’t see that happening. I enjoyed my employment. I didn’t enjoy hearing and seeing staff violate inmates rights. Because I stood up for the law, I was blackballed out of a position. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the beast. Good Luck Ely; until Baker, Fletcher and Byrnes are removed and those who believe in following the rights of correctional correctness of running a correctional facility, you will always have your problems.

  9. Rahim Muhammad says:

    Well, I defintely want to wiegh in on this …I was an inmate there and it was horrible to be in that place, but I guess prison should not be a´playground. I will say that I experiened a racism, discrimination, and other problems that come along with the prison culture. That I almost committed suicide in that place, that I most went crazy there.
    I remember Renee Baker when she was my caseworker, she was not too bad, in fact I thought her to be okay ..she was respectful and she listen to the concerns and seem genuinely concerned. I was glad she was my caseworker in unit 3b.
    I am not sure how ESp is now, but they need to do something more about having better trained staff, hiring staff that are more educated and qualified. If that means being more “politically correct” well so be it. If they need more staff them give them more staff, especailly mental health staff..you need it in that place.
    I mean literally, almost killed myself there, that place really impacted me negatively. I started hating white people, I started calling myself “D.T.A”: Death-to-Amerikkka.
    I was in the “hole” for nearly 3 years! The staff were terrible(not all of them, like Green was cool in unit 3b and officer Nobles) but it was a horrible experience that almost destroyed my mind.
    Renee Baker got me out the hole…
    Ely State Prison needs alot of help…I believe you guys can do better, we live in a great and developed nation.
    I know it is not easy managing a bunch of prisoners but better effort needs to be asserted and if that means paying the staff more….maybe ESP is logistically in wrong place.
    I hope you guys find some viable solutions.

  10. Patricia says:

    My husband is currently housed there. He went to prison for ex-felon with a firearm. Got transferred to E.S.P. for enticing a riot. He tells me this was untrue and he put in a grevence. He’s been there going on two months and has yet to receive his write-up. Even his caseworker has stated that he should of never been sent to Ely. Not one write up from SDCC he says he’s surrounded by lifers and sees people getting stabbed all the time. He tells me it’s a horrible place he says the guards there are more respectful than those at SDCC but he’s ALWAYS ON LOCKDOWN. I get a phone call if I’m lucky 10mins mind you every 4-8days. He is in no programs. I am scared for my husband. He only has a year left in his sentence but how will he return to society? My husband is not a bad man. We have a family and kids. How is the state of Nevada rehabilitating my husband to come back and be successful? He needs to be sent back to SDCC or be released on his next parole hearing. Pay attention .

  11. MICHAEL ORRIS says:

    I’ll work there. My Brother is locked up there. Make an exception? What better way to serve than to really serve.?

  12. “The prison holds a large economic and political influence in the area.”
    Readers might enjoy an expansion of that statement.

  13. The biggest problem with Ely is not only the prison, but the four or five families that control all the businesses in the local economy. I was born and raised in Ely and lived there for 28 years of my life. However, I grew tired of the fact that the price of everything there was so expensive, nothing was allowed to come into there and because of that mentality I moved away a few years back. It was the best decision I ever made and it’s tragic that the four or five families who control the local economy force people to drive four hours to Vegas, Twin Falls, Salt Lake, or Reno to do their shopping, get good healthcare, and every other need under the sun.

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