The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
July/August 2005
FEATURE
 
 

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 shut.

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 warden.

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 sally ports.

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 them.

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 history.

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 inmates.”


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.

 

   

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