Courtesy photo
NDOC Director James Dzurenda surrounded by NDOC staff

Courtesy photo
Ely State Prison.

By Brooke Keast

There is much to smile about at the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC).  In the past year, Governor Sandoval hired a new Director who changed the mission of the department which focuses on building stronger communities.

“Eighty percent of our inmates will be released in the next 15 years.  We need to focus on giving them the tools to change their behavior so they don’t re-victimize when they get out.” Director James Dzurenda said. “We need to incorporate evidence based programming into our prisons.  Ely is no exception in fact, the inmates here need it the most.”

In 1989, the state of Nevada built its only maximum security prison just north of Ely, and Ely State Prison (ESP) has become rather well known.  Currently housing close to 1100 inmates ESP is located in what feels like its own secret valley, through a scenic mountain divide on state route 490.  While driving into the area you notice buildings, towers, fences but nothing seems menacing until you recognize the surrounding razor wire.  This is where Nevada houses the most difficult and high risk felons and of course… death row.

Though the Legislature considered a bill to abolish its use, Capital Punishment is still an option in Nevada.  NDOC currently houses 82 offenders sentenced to death, most at Ely, though there hasn’t been an execution completed in the state since 2006 and no court orders are expected anytime soon.  In 2012, the Nevada State Prison in Carson City closed its doors, but it held the only death chamber which had been built in the early 1900’s and was in need of repairs to be compliant with the American’s with Disabilities Act. In a nutshell, the chamber was inadequate to be used for today’s executions.

“If a court order is issued to our agency, we can’t tell the court that we are unable to complete it.  That’s not acceptable,” stated Director Jim Dzurenda.  “As a state agency, it is our responsibility to have the means in place to complete every one of our duties.  As the Department of Corrections, executions fit into that category.”

In 2017, the state completed construction on a death chamber in Ely State Prison to replace the old one the tune of over $800,000 which was highly publicized because at the same time, the pharmaceutical companies stopped supplying the needed medications.  Nevada Revised Statutes requires any execution to be done through lethal injection, and there is no way to accomplish that.

“We put out a bid to 247 pharmaceutical companies. Not a single vendor responded.  We are now forced to research our options to obtain the necessary drugs by other means.” Dzurenda added, though he gave no clues as to what the other means may be.  This is an ongoing issue for all of the 31 states that still practice capital punishment. (

Another issue common to most states is staffing the prisons.  As of this writing, Ely State Prison is operating with 50 vacant correctional officer positions, not to mention medical staff, maintenance, administrative and more.  Since it opened, the prison has grown to 406 employee positions and become one of the leading employers in the region.

“We are actively recruiting in Ely,” said  ESP Warden Tim Filson.  “A prison is just like a contained city.  We provide shelter, utilities, food, medical care… all the necessities people have on the outside we must provide on the inside, which means we need skilled workers in a multitude of different fields.”

For more information on jobs check out the state of Nevada website – Inmates do much of the work within the walls of the prison, such as laundry, landscaping and general cleaning, cooking and serving food for the inmates.  They bake all the bread for the institution and nearby conservation camp.  There are inmates that crochet hats and scarves for kids and lap blankets for those residents at the local senior center. “The inmates do a lot of work, but it’s our staff that is truly committed to the community,” stated Warden Filson. “If it’s important to the community of Ely, it’s important to us and our staff will likely be involved in a big way.”

Last year alone the staff at Ely supported the local school district by hosting car washes and food fundraisers at the prison, participated in Relay for Life, fundraised for Special Olympics and helped the local Rotary club with their Fishing Derby and Golf Tournament among other things.  “I’m very proud of the efforts of my staff and the family atmosphere we have here at the prison,” added Filson, “It’s an interesting place to work.  We are making positive change here and I’m excited for the future of our department.”

One of the recent changes is that Nevada was chosen as one of five states to participate in the VERA Institute’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative (SASI) which is aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement.  VERA will work with the NDOC staff round the clock to assess how they are using segregation, develop viable strategies to safely reduce that use, and assist with implementing these changes.

“With Vera’s assistance, Nevada will be better equipped to both reduce reliance on segregation and improve the way it is used, with the goal of preparing inmates for success when they return to their communities,” stated Director Dzurenda. “This opportunity is directly in line with the mission of the department, will encourage positive development and needed reform, and will boost safety inside and outside the prison walls.”

There’s ground breaking work being done at Ely State Prison, unassumingly tucked away in its beautiful little valley. Working with inmates sentenced to death and those with a second chance at life, staff can help offenders make change in their lives and curb the cycle of incarceration, one inmate at a time.