Desert Life: Nevada Incarcerated Chapters
BY MICHAEL KEATING
VVA Chapter 545: The Desert in Flower
“Leave all cell phones, knives,
and other contraband here,” said the officer through thick
plexiglass at the gatehouse entrance. In exchange for our
driver’s licenses, he gave us passes. “Not wearing any blue, are
you?” he asked suspiciously.
With a long buzz and a sudden
clang, the first prison door opened, and we were directed
through the passageway but only to stumble over each other in a
claustrophobic space. They call it a sally port. It’s an
interspace, really, between two doors. One is always shut; one
sometimes opens. But never are both opened at the same time. A
long buzz and clang: the second door opens and we are inside the
secure perimeter. We are in prison.
Straight ahead and to our left,
tall fences topped with swirling razor wire shoot out into the
distance under the desert sky. “There’s an entire industry
devoted to prison design,” says Terry Hubert, our guide—a
retired prison associate warden, Vietnam veteran, president of
Carson Chapter 388, and the State Council vice president. The
Nevada State Prison in Carson City is an old stone edifice
constructed in the “Big House” style favored in the 19th
century. Nevada’s newer prisons outside Las Vegas, east in
Lovelock, and the new maximum-security prison in Ely are modern,
20th century designs.
It’s May and the desert is in
flower, awash in yellow and mauve. Vast clearing storm clouds
rise up in a dark blue Western sky. The door behind us clangs
Before us is the entrance to the
Nevada State Prison. It’s one of the oldest prisons still in
operation in the United States. It was established in 1862 when
the Nevada Legislature purchased the Warm Springs Hotel and
surrounding land. Hotelier Abraham Curry was appointed the first
Until 1989, the Nevada State
Prison operated as a maximum-security facility. NSP was the site
of the first execution by gas: In 1922, Gee Jon, a Chinese Tong
assassin, was killed in a small stone shop converted into a gas
chamber. Executions are still performed here. Although death row
is at the Ely facility, condemned inmates are brought to NSP in
advance and then executed here.
We mount the steps, enter the
brown sandstone administration building, and walk up to Control.
Once satisfied, the officer behind thick glass opens the sally
port door under her control. Again, after a long buzz and abrupt
clang, we pass through both doors of the sally port. Prison life
is controlled movement, constant observation, and many, many
We’re in the visiting room. Off
to the side is the fishbowl, where secure visiting takes place
by telephone and visitors are separated by thick glass. The main
visiting room is a grim, flinching room where friends, lovers,
wives, and kids attempt somehow to remain in touch, often
without touching. A place where families try to hold onto the
shattered remnants of their lives. A place where the power of
the state is only barely concealed. Where big, unfriendly guards
stand over Daddy, and where Mommy cries, and where it would be
very, very frightening if it were not for the cartoon figures
tumbling down the wall in the corner. It’s a corner where
children—in the company of Mickey and Goofy and Daffy—find
comfort and strength.
Up above, in this room set aside
for people for whom time is a quixotic burden, is a long, narrow
mural depicting the eternal, serene, bucolic passage of the
seasons: the floral riots of spring, the lushness of summer, the
colors of autumn. Deer look out over a snowy winter hill.
The gifts of a benign
administration? Not hardly. These murals and paintings were done
by artists of VVA Chapter 545, originally with funds raised by
the chapter. At first, the warden allowed VVA and AVVA members
to soften the children’s area. Later he allowed murals
throughout the visiting area. VVA general meetings are held
here, as is the annual awards banquet that honors those members,
associates, staff, and outside supporters who make the chapter
productive and viable.
“Everything is a privilege,”
Hubert repeatedly reminds us during our tour. An enormous amount
of work was involved before the prison authorities would allow
Chapter 545 to humanize the waiting room.
It’s a short walk through sally
ports, of course, to the prison’s large interior courtyard, also
known as The Yard.
After a buzz and a harsh,
metallic clank, the doors open. The Lower Yard, the center of
the original sandstone quarry, is formed by the interior walls
of three- and four-story cellhouses. But instead of the harsh,
drab, cruel vision of my expectations, what we see seems almost
hallucinatory: Lush beds of bearded iris bloom in profusion and
push against the walkways. The gurgle of water attracts the eye
to beautifully tended ponds. Koi glint in the sun as they shyly
swim under pads of pale pink water lilies.
“I keep the koi until they reach
a certain size,” explained one inmate. “Then I sell them back to
the pet shop, and they give me more koi and more plants.”
Everything’s a privilege. The
prison authorities can give and they can take. Chapter 545
members submitted plans and made tentative initiating steps.
Each time, the privilege was granted or denied. Each time, in
turn, inmates must recommit themselves to their projects.
The gardens started small. The
Yard was grim and stark. Yet step by step, as trust developed,
the gardens grew and flourished. They flourished to the extent
that trucks now bring in compost—purchased through inmate
fund-raising efforts—to enrich the otherwise rocky soil.
Enormous amounts of time have been spent digging, cultivating,
and caring for the gardens.
Now the gardens originated by
Chapter 545 have become a major part of the prison’s social and
economic life, as well as a powerful recruiting tool for both
VVA and AVVA. The vegetable harvest is so bountiful that it
feeds the prison population and food is donated to organizations
on the outside.
“In another week or so, the
artichokes should be ready,” remarked an AVVA member as he
tended his plot. On one garden hilltop is the future site of a
Vietnam Veterans Memorial—another privilege negotiated
crab-like, each side gradually buying into the idea, permission
granted step by step.
Chapter 545 started with
permission by the administration to “beautify” The Yard. Over
the period of a decade, the Yard Beautification Program has
transformed the bleak, dusty, and oppressive yard into a virtual
botanical garden. The funds were raised by VVA members and
associates who recycled aluminum cans. Later, VVA barbeque
fund-raisers supplemented those funds.
The prison administration and
staff were at first reluctant and skeptical. But through hard
work and persistence, the chapter demonstrated that it could be
a positive force in the yard and a positive force in the lives
of the inmate population. The transformation of The Yard which
now boasts basketball and handball courts, and a large and
popular weight-lifting area, convinced the NSP to work with VVA
further. Psychologist Bob Farrar, the staff sponsor, initiated a
prisoner literacy program that brought reading specialists into
the prison to train VVA and AVVA members to be literacy tutors.
Drug- and alcohol-awareness
programs also were initiated. These programs were so successful
that the prison administration eventually adopted and funded
VVA Chapter 545 conducts
Commercial Driving License courses for inmates approaching their
discharge dates. The Rock Cutting and Teddy Bear programs fund
the beautification program. The annual NSP Arts and Crafts Fair
raises money for the students at nearby Empire Elementary
School. The chapter has provided a water line and hydrants to
the Upper Yard, where members bought and laid sod for the
athletic field, laid carpet for the NSO chapel, and hauled dirt
and compost to the many gardens.
Eventually, Chapter 545 was given
its own office space. VVA and AVVA members—through determination
and more than a little sweat—converted an abandoned shower and
toilet into a clubhouse. The walls are painted with scenes from
the Vietnam War: helicopters, jungle, the South China Sea. Teddy
bears sewn by members for fund-raisers or simply to distribute
to visiting children hang from the ceiling. Water gurgles
through the coffee pot; a parrot squawks for attention; a member
hits the print key on his computer to make a copy of the chapter
For a long time, VVA was the only
recognized organization. Recently, it has been joined by the
Jericho chapter of the NAACP. Its office is next to VVA’s and
often the organizations collaborate.
On the other side of The Yard
filled with men in blue—not cops, but inmates: all inmates are
required to wear blue; no one else may wear blue (makes it easy
to identify who’s who)—are a few men with dogs. Men in blue with
dogs, no they’re not guard dogs. Rather, it’s Pets on Parole.
The local Humane Society brings
to the prison dogs that have been so badly abused and
traumatized that it would be foolish and dangerous to adopt them
out. Inmates work with the animals until they’re socialized and
can be returned to the Humane Society for adoption. It’s slow
work, but it’s work that the participating inmates find very
satisfying. The dogs are housed on what was once Death Row.
Although not originated by VVA,
veterinary supplies, food, and materials to support the program
are provided by VVA.
“The state of Nevada spends very
little per year per inmate,” Hubert said. “Sometimes, when VVA
projects succeed, the state will take them over. VVA takes the
risks, takes the growing pains, but in the end it benefits the
Perhaps the best-known VVA-Nevada
State Prison collaboration is the Stone Carving Project. It
occupies an area off from The Lower Yard. As rock was quarried
for the State Capitol, the Carson Mint, and other civic and
religious institutions, including the prison itself, the quarry
became The Yard. Active quarrying ended in the 1970s. The
rejected sandstone composite rock with quartz, granite, and
fossils is now being recut, shaped, sculpted, and painted by the
self-described Rock Crew: Ricky Waters, Monti Calvert, Billy
Beck, Stu Bogert, Al Dawson, and Nelson Pratt.
While separated by a 12-foot
fence and a gunpost, inmates work here with little supervision.
In a cave dug into the side of the hill where originally the
miscreants of Old Max were thrown for solitary confinement is
the Project Office. The project started very small, but now
inmates proudly display a huge assortment of tools, including
chisels, air compressors, and polishers. Every evening, each
tool must be accounted for. Each tool is a privilege extended.
The guys know it and they’re
proud of it. Now corporations, primarily construction companies,
are buying them expensive drills and stone cutting saws in
exchange for their services. The project that perhaps they are
most proud of is the Nevada
Vietnam Memorial, a grouping of carved slabs of stone in
Mills Park in Carson City.
Another striking project was
commissioned by a nearby planetarium. The Jack C. Davis
Observatory in Carson City sits on a summit. A path meanders
down the hill. Along the path are massive stones; from each a
planet is carved in bas-relief. Also, the planets are painted
after photographs from the Hubble telescope.
It was VVA Chapter 545 that
carved, created, and painted these stones. Chapter 545
researched the planets, pored over photographs, and dreamt of
the heavens. Chapter 545’s Stone Carving Project imagined this
meditational walk through the high desert and then those artists
and dreamers created it.