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.