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Prison laborers boost Nev. town

Residents battle for inmates' help

By Ashley Powers
Los Angeles Times / May 10, 2009
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TONOPAH, Nev. - Diane Perchetti couldn't pull off the Easter celebration alone. Her to-do list was too lengthy: stack chairs, mop floors, and haul out the decorative jail cell from the recent Muckers Ball fund-raiser.

She phoned Bob Bottom, who oversees the local minimum- security prison camp. As usual, he sent over the inmates.

In this former boomtown forgotten by much of the state, the small prison is a savior for residents and the cash-strapped town manager. Supervised inmates shovel snowed-in driveways, yank out weeds, clean rain gutters, slash brush and dig graves.

"They do everything but herd cattle," said Perchetti, 63, who runs the Tonopah Convention Center. "Shoot, they fixed my plumbing a few times."

So when state officials proposed mothballing the camp to help narrow Nevada's $3 billion budget gap, residents prepared for battle. They repeatedly carpooled to the Capitol - a 460-mile round trip. To lawmakers and their staff, they handed out save-the-camp pleas written by senior citizens, high school principals, the Salvation Army, and students.

If Tonopah, population 2,600, prevails, it will have accomplished something notable in this recession: staving off government cuts with little more than scrappiness.

In recent months, a number of revenue-deficient states, including New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey, have considered closing prisons. Kansas and Michigan have locked up lockups, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Even communities that once balked at housing prisons are fighting for the jobs and cheap labor they provide. Across the nation, prisoners fix tractors, mow lawns, and fish scrap metal from landfills. Their towns have staged letter-writing campaigns and rallies on their behalf.

Nevada is saddled with, by percentage, the nation's largest budget gap, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Some of the budget cuts proposed by Republican Governor Jim Gibbons target the Department of Corrections.

The 150-inmate Tonopah camp needs less than $2 million a year, some of which the state Division of Forestry provides. But sitting more than 200 miles from both Las Vegas and Reno, the camp has struggled to retain staff, said Suzanne Pardee, a corrections department spokeswoman. "If it's just counting dollars and cents, it doesn't make sense to keep it open," said Republican Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea of Eureka, who emerged as one of the camp's top advocates. "But these communities depend on it in so many ways."

Tonopah certainly does. Although it touts itself as the "Queen of the Silver Camps," the town has seen more regal days. A modern job provider, the Stealth Fighter plane, was relocated in the 1990s from nearby Nellis Air Force Range to New Mexico.

Now, the town subsists on annual revenue of $750,000. Still, longtime residents have few complaints. The median home price is about $78,000, and the night sky is a stargazer's dream.