The state Board of Prison Commissioners took no vote Tuesday on whether to close the aging Nevada State Prison in Carson City but approved a hiring freeze to reduce potential layoffs if the prison is shuttered.
Depart-ment of Corrections officials also told Gov. Brian Sandoval and Secretary of State Ross Miller that because the prison, which also houses Nevada's death chamber, does not comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, a judge could bar executions from being carried out if witnesses are unable to access it.
Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who also serves on the prison board, was not present at Tuesday's meeting.
Officials said 61 positions would be eliminated by Aug. 1 if the prison is closed. Imposing a hiring freeze now at NSP and Warm Springs Correctional Center would leave positions open for remaining staff if legislators ultimately agree with the governor's plan to close it.
The prison's closure is included in Sandoval's proposed two-year budget. Sandoval's predecessor, Gov. Jim Gibbons, had also wanted to close the prison, but his attempts were rebuffed by the two Democrats on the prison board and by lawmakers.
Greg Cox, acting director of the Department of Corrections, said closing the prison would save $16 million over the next two years, and that every month of delay will cost $700,000. He said inmates at NSP could be moved to other more modern facilities.
Parts of NSP date to the 1860s.
Gus Nunez, manager of the state Public Works Board, said five buildings at the prison are out of service because their housing units are either too small or utilities no longer work.
Regarding the execution chamber, he said metal stairs leading to the death room are not ADA compliant and could prevent survivors of victims from witnessing an execution.
Cox said the department is looking at moving the chamber, possibly to the maximum security prison in Ely, about 300 miles east of Carson City.
"How ADA friendly would it be to ask witness families to drive to Ely to witness an execution," Curtis Thomas, and correctional officer, responded in later testimony.
Nunez also detailed other problems, like leaking and corroded pipes, and tunnels that were hand dug beneath some units to access underground utilities.
"This is a serious issue," he said. "My staff was quite concerned about even knowing about it."
"Obviously digging tunnels in a prison is not something you want to do," he said.
But critics said the prison's structural problems were overblown.
"Every institution has maintenance costs," said Gene Columbus with the Nevada Corrections Association. He said closing the prison would raise problems with classifying inmates, and keeping various population segments away from each other.
Rebecca Gasca, with the American Civil Liberties Union, said if the state is considering moving its death chamber, it should "take stock of the situation in its entirety" and consider a moratorium on executions while doing a cost study on death penalty litigations.