Monday, January 3, 2011

Legislative Lack of Knowledge

A nationwide problem—public leadership’s policy-hampering lack of insight into the criminal justice system— is revealed in this article from the Las Vegas Sun.

An excerpt.

“Come Jan. 4, Nevada Corrections Department Director Howard Skolnik will no longer have to deal with life and death decisions, shrinking budgets or queries from state lawmakers who have hardly toured prison grounds.

“At 66, Skolnik leaves a career that began as a correctional officer at the Ohio Penitentiary 45 years ago, longer than most hardened inmates spend behind bars.

“It ends in a position as director he says is rewarded more by what doesn’t happen on one’s watch — such as stabbings or escapes — than what does.

“It’s those life and death decisions, such as instructing a warden how to handle an inmate during a dangerous moment, that Skolnik says translates into protecting both the prison system and public.

“During his career, prisons evolved from having poorly trained guards and crude methods to quell inmate uprisings to having better trained personnel but intense scrutiny from the courts.

“In the 1960s, Skolnik manned a prison office with an emergency button under the desk.

“If I pushed the button, two large inmates came in and beat whoever was in my office, dragged them out,” he said. “That button, I’m relatively sure, saved my life one time. But that was not how this business should operate.”

“Skolnik, who guides a staff of 2,800, was appointed prisons director in February 2007 by Gov. Jim Gibbons after serving nearly 20 years as the department’s deputy director for industrial programs and the official prison spokesman.

“He’s stepping down, he said, because he thinks he would not have been retained by Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval, who takes office next month.

“I’ve had my battles with the Legislature, and I suspect that this governor coming in has a much more conciliatory attitude toward them than the governor I’ve worked for,” Skolnik said. “And, of course, my responsibility is to support the governor that I worked for.”

“Gibbons more than appreciates that loyalty. Dan Burns, Gibbons’ spokesman, said “the governor believes Howard’s performance as head of prisons has been outstanding, especially in these trying economic times.”

“When he ran prison industries, Skolnik developed a reputation as an innovator who had inmates work on projects involving far more creativity than the traditional license plate programs usually associated with prison labor.

“One highly publicized program was the auto restoration work done by inmates at Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs that included assembly of the famed Shelby Cobra sports car.

“Under Skolnik, inmates developed a clothing line, fed stray horses, created stained glass and began manufacturing Bighouse Choppers, which he billed as the only outlaw motorcycles made in the U.S. by real outlaws.

“But it wasn’t until he became prison director that Skolnik was thrust into the spotlight. He inherited a system whose facilities were overcrowded because of the state’s rapid population growth, lengthy sentences and high incarceration rates.

“Wasting little time trying to convince legislators that the overcrowding endangered an undermanned prison staff — he says the inmate to prison staff ratio is second highest in the nation behind Alabama — Skolnik embarked on an ambitious plan to build prisons and upgrade existing ones.

“He succeeded in adding 1,000 beds to the system and got some relief when the prison population began flattening out. That was because of legislation that allowed mostly nonviolent offenders to be released earlier, along with a drop in crime rates.

“But the state’s economy soured, forcing Skolnik to close a prison in Jean and a conservation camp in Silver Springs.

“All of a sudden my job was to figure out how to run a department with a lot less money than we had,” he said.

“Some proposals didn’t sit well with lawmakers, such as his recommendation to close the antiquated Nevada State Prison in Carson City, part of which was constructed in the 1860s. Despite his arguments the prison is unsafe, it remains open.”