Las Vegas is one of the crown jewels of the U.S. tourism industry. Its glitz, glamour and attractions, coupled with an unrelenting invitation to go for the jackpot, stay out late and live extravagantly, make it an international tourist destination. But as with most cities that host major tourist attractions, the polished facade hides a world of crime, drug addiction and other social ills. There’s a reason why it has earned the moniker Sin City.
There is no certain way to eliminate crime from society, but Nevada officials are hoping to at least remove a few offenders from the cycle of crime and incarceration that has helped fuel a nearly 70 percent recidivism rate among the state’s prisoners.
About three miles away from the famous Las Vegas Strip — a four-mile stretch of casinos and other attractions popular with tourists — a new nondescript building in an industrial part of town is attracting a different crowd.
Developer: The Molasky Group
The Casa Grande Transitional Housing Center was designed to spur a change in recidivism rates by encouraging employment and financial stability for inmates preparing to return to society. The facility, one of the largest of its kind, can house up to 400 offenders in its two dormitory buildings. It also includes rooms for counseling and group instruction, a kitchen facility and offices for various state agencies.
“The Casa Grande concept is a very highly structured emergence back into society with gradual increases in freedom to residents,” says Rich Worthington, president of Molasky Group, the firm that developed the facility.
Attack of the NIMBYs
Those involved with the Casa Grande facility credit much of its inception to Jackie Crawford, former director of the Nevada Department of Corrections. Crawford, who now works for Molasky, says the initial idea came from a study committee that included several stakeholders in the state’s prison system, including legislators, corrections officials and community leaders.
When the study was conducted, the state was processing about 4,000 inmates both in and out of its facilities annually. Offenders that finished their sentences were given $25 and released with their prison clothes.
“The study pointed out through numerous testimonies that we were lacking in programs and more importantly, transitional services,” Crawford says. “We knew that, but we felt like it needed to be documented.”
Furniture was supplied by Nevada Department of Corrections prison industries.
With documentation in hand, officials started planning for the transitional facility, but when it was time to select a site, they encountered a strong case of “NIMBYism (not in my backyard)” from potential government jurisdictions, neighbors and neighboring businesses that were weary of having a correctional facility nearby. More than 10 sites went into escrow before the final location was selected, according to Worthington.
“We were basically thrown out of each of the cities,” Worthington says. “Nobody really wanted this project in their backyard.”
An appropriate location was eventually found in unincorporated Clark County, which ended up being a blessing in disguise. The industrial area is home to several companies that could benefit from the DOC’s goal to find employment for offenders in transition. Manufacturers, laundry services, a service station and several companies that provide services for businesses on the Strip are all located in the area.
Although, this is the first correctional facility project Molasky has been involved with, Crawford credits the company’s experience and community ties with successfully landing the site.
A kitchen at the facility provides meals for up to 400 inmates.
“They had community contacts and there was a lot of confidence and trust in what they did,” Crawford says. “In partnering with them and selecting them, that helped ease the site selection and the ability to get the Casa Grande facility built.”
Working on a Solution
Despite all the potential pitfalls that Las Vegas has to offer an offender on the road to rehabilitation, it has at least one benefit — lots of entry-level jobs.
“One of the challenges that we have in Vegas, because we have such a dynamic economy — gaming makes about $9 billion and conventions bring in about $6 billion — we are almost at full employment here,” Worthington says. “It is very difficult to find a good supply of disciplined entry-level workers that are willing to work at just above minimum wage. Casa Grande is very appealing to a lot of employers that are trying to find help that is in the lower salary price range.”
The program is straightforward: Only inmates without a history of sex offenses who have not been charged with a violent crime within the last five years need apply. Offenders who are accepted to the program arrive at the facility about three months before their sentence is complete. They must find employment and once they have a job they have a two-hour time limit to return to the facility before they are considered escapees.
“Surrounding the facility is a tremendous amount of industrial employers,” Worthington says. “Being in the middle of that heavily industrialized area was really a plus in getting employment up to speed quickly.”
Which is good thing, according to Howard Skolnik, deputy director of prison industries, since the facility is being partially funded by daily payments of $17 from each offender. Worthington says the payment system saves the state about $3 million annually.
The method is financially beneficial for the state, according to Skolnik, but it sometimes means that offenders get a little too much freedom before they are ready for it.
“We push them out to get jobs, so they can pay rent, perhaps faster than we should,” Skolnik says.
With all the lures back into a criminal lifestyle that Vegas has to offer — the party atmosphere, gambling, vulnerable tourists, drugs — wouldn’t that make offenders more likely to fail? Not necessarily, according to Skolnik.
“The primary problems that we have with our offenders are drugs and alcohol and that is found in almost every community within the United States,” Skolnik says. “We have guys that are working in those casinos and they’re doing great. I think either you want to succeed and therefore when the temptation goes by you ignore it, or you don’t get it, in which case you are going to go back to prison.”
Although it will take several years for a comprehensive study to be completed on Casa Grande’s effect on Nevada’s recidivism rate, so far, the facility’s results look promising. During the first six months of operation, about 400 inmates were housed at the facility and 225 inmates completed the program successfully. Twenty-eight inmates walked out of the facility, but 26 were recaptured. There were about 100 inmates who were returned to prison because they could not secure employment or they failed a drug test.
Facility Name: Casa Grande Transitional Housing Facility
“It think it would take three to four years in longitudinal studies to prove that it really dramatically reduces recidivism,” Worthington says. “Right now all we have is the experience of other facilities, but we think that it is going to cut recidivism in half.”
Crawford, the former Nevada DOC director, says she thinks that Casa Grande can serve as a bellwether for re-entry centers, which in the past have typically been designed on a much smaller scale.
“This is the largest, but I think we may have set a trend for people to be bold in their planning,” Crawford says.
And, those large facilities could be the product of the Molasky Group.
“We’ve very proud of this and we hope to bring it to other states,” Worthington says. “We are currently looking at California and other western states.”