- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - To see the Nevada State Prison in Carson City is to understand why lawmakers decided to shut it down three years ago. The site, which housed prisoners even before Nevada became a state 150 years ago, features cramped cells, uneven walkways and the kinds of blind spots that would leave corrections officers patrolling the yard nervous.

But an enthusiastic group of history buffs, including some who once worked as guards there, see the fossil-laden, sandstone-block structure as the next Alcatraz - a tourist attraction steeped in lore of prison breaks, Wild West personalities and outlaw antics.

“From a correctional standpoint, it’s awful,” said Glen Whorton, a former prison guard and head of the prison’s preservation society.

“But from a design standpoint, it’s awesome,” former guard Terry Hubert added.

The Nevada State Prison Preservation Society scored a win this legislative session when lawmakers approved AB377, a bill sponsored by Carson City’s Republican Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill. The measure sets up a process for the state to designate portions of the 153-year-old complex for cultural use, establishes a funding mechanism and sets groundwork for eventual tours.

But even proponents acknowledge that the opening day of a functional museum is far off. Despite closing in 2012, the state’s correctional department still operates a license plate manufacturing plant and Nevada’s only functioning execution chamber on prison grounds.

Plus, the state hasn’t allocated money to prison preservation efforts or conducted feasibility studies on the buildings, meaning substantial financial assistance is needed to move the project forward.

“There’s too many variables to give you an exact date,” O’Neill said.

Yet preservation advocates say the prison, which operated as the state’s only correctional institution until 1964, drips with historical appeal as the site of inmate escapes and the nation’s only prisoner-operated casino. Founded two years after Nevada became a territory in 1862, the prison has housed everyone from mining boom-era “desperadoes” to card cheats from Las Vegas.

The National Park Service is reviewing a lengthy application for the prison to be put of the National Register of Historic Places.

The application details the prison’s history, including an 1871 jailbreak in which about 30 prisoners escaped and engaged in a gun battle with warden John Franklin Denver, who also was the state’s lieutenant governor.

The prison’s execution chamber hasn’t been used since 2007 and can’t be used because the steep stairs up to the witness chamber are out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers voted this session to approve $860,000 to build an execution chamber in Ely State Prison - a decision that drew criticism from death penalty foes.

The prison also holds a place in death penalty history as the site of the nation’s first gas chamber execution in 1924.

If the prison opens to tours, it would join Alcatraz and numerous other prisons in the U.S. that have become tourist attractions.

“People are interested in prisons and want to see the inside of them,” said Sean Kelley, senior vice president at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, which draws about 400,000 visitors a year. “There’s a taboo that you’ll never get to go inside a prison.”

Kelley said Eastern State, which opened in 1829, closed in 1971 and opened as a cultural attraction in 1994, isn’t above holding a spooky fundraiser every Halloween. But the rest of the year, it sees itself as a place for tourists to grapple with questions about mass incarceration.

“We have all intentions to be the place in the U.S. to look for the most substantial conversations about the criminal justice system today,” Kelley said. “We’re coming out of a real tough-on-crime era, and no one realized how tough on crime we were being . There’s bipartisan interest in looking at our prisons.”

Proponents of the Nevada project are organizing a ceremonial bill signing and barbecue with the Carson City Chamber of Commerce to generate interest in the restoration.

O’Neill said the prison would offer one more reason for visitors to stop by Nevada’s capital city.

“Europeans love the Wild West, and are enthralled by any building that can take you back to the western days,” he said. “The Nevada State Prison will fit that bill.”

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