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Prison job stress, hazards may overshadow benefits

Prisons are located on the edge of small towns for many reasons, not the least of which is the well-worn proposition that penitentiaries offer needed jobs in rural areas.

There’s some truth in the statement. When state prisons opened in Jean and Ely the better part of a generation ago, the “help wanted” sign went out. The same is technically true for diminutive Indian Springs, which finds itself essentially flanked by state prisons on one side and an Air Force base and military shooting gallery on the other. It’s no surprise that many Indian Springs residents commute to Las Vegas for work, and that corrections officers at the prison complex at Cold Creek generally come from Las Vegas.

In Nevada, those jobs are rarely what they’re cracked up to be. A couple of recent news events are a reminder that there’s a price to pay for hitching a ride with a prison economy.

Outside Yerington, the Silver State Academy juvenile correction facility has been plagued in recent months with everything from arson to escape perpetrated by the troubled youths housed there. On the edge of Las Vegas, the Red Rock Academy recently gave up its contract with state and county authorities after it failed to meet accreditation standards. Both facilities are run by the Rite of Passage nonprofit organization.

Then there’s the bigger news that a fatal shooting in November of an inmate by a corrections officer at High Desert State Prison near Indian Springs wasn’t made public. Not even Gov. Brian Sandoval appears to have known there was a killing at the prison.

Bad things sometimes happen in prisons. It’s the nature of the beast. That’s not news.

But what is sure to surprise some people is how poor the pay, benefits and working conditions are for Nevada corrections officers — even given the fact they’re toiling inside a penitentiary.

Following the exposure of the High Desert shooting incident by Las Vegas Review-Journal reporters, corrections officers given the protection of anonymity have begun speaking up about the awful working conditions they endure to secure a paycheck and the prospect of a pension. (Most will never come close to putting in a full career walking the yard.)

The stresses take their toll on the employees and their families and that can have a harsh effect on a small community.

In an interview for The Nation, correctional institution psychiatrist and post-traumatic stress disorder specialist Frank Ochberg observed, “Prison functions in entirely the opposite way from the small, healthy family or community. It does to a human being what a zoo does to a wild animal.”

More than one in four officers suffer from PTSD, compared with just 3.5 percent for the population at large, according to Colorado’s Desert Waters correctional outreach center.

Psychologist Caterina Spinaris of Desert Waters told the magazine the high rate of PTSD is linked to “witnessing offender-on-offender violence in real time, discovering bodies of offenders who committed suicide, or being physically assaulted, or threatened with physical or sexual violence.”

There is a price to pay for every job description, but residents of Nevada’s small towns may find themselves wondering if welcoming a prison close to their community is worth it in the long run.

One Nevada veteran corrections officer who asked to remain anonymous, said of the High Desert shooting, “The officers may have made mistakes, however, they are constantly being told to do the job, risk your safety with no backup or proper staffing (even minimum staffing is violated regularly). Officer assaults are increasing as well as inmate assaults.”

As necessary as penitentiaries are in our state, that’s not exactly an endorsement for placing a prison near your hometown.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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