Patti and Marcia Bernard had an idyllic Nevada childhood, living at one of the state’s most historic sites, riding horses amid the sagebrush—and hanging out with murderers.
Today, Patti Bernard of Reno and her sister, Marcia Bernard Cuccaro of Carson City, say the experience of growing up at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City was a strong influence on their lives and careers. Their dad, Arthur Bernard, was appointed by Gov. Charles Russell as the state prison warden in 1951 and served until 1959. When the family moved into the only residence on the grounds, Marcia was 7, and Patti was 5. Their brother Don was 15 and left after high school to attend college.
Their days were filled with normal activities, like making their own beds, a formal dinner every night, and attending school a mile away in Carson City. Patti rode her horse, Twilight, through the fields of sagebrush and rabbit brush outside the walls. Don received a learner’s permit to drive before he was 16 and drove his sisters to school.
It seemed a privileged life. They were surrounded by cooks, gardeners and housekeepers—all inmates working in their home. Some were convicted of murder, but Warden Bernard trusted them with his children.
“Our father had an affinity for murderers,” Marcia said when she and Patti spoke at a fundraiser luncheon for the Nevada Women’s History Project. “He said that they only murder once.”
Christianne Hamel, a history project member, said she learned that the inmates, called trustees, “truly looked out for the two girls, and at the same time the girls were given interesting skills, such as how to pick a lock.” On one occasion, trustees rolled back the odometer on the family’s 1955 Chevy and fixed the car’s damage after one of the girls had a fender bender. Their parents were never informed. (No one likes a snitch.)
Ophelia, the family’s first housekeeper, shot a man who had stalked her. “She was the first Black person I’d ever met,” Marcia said.
The friendship and empathy the young girls developed for their inmate friends influenced Marcia’s career in social work, working in rehabilitation services and at the state Division of Aging Services.
Hamel said the girls “lived in an interesting crucible that caused them to be acutely aware of how people behave under duress and stress.”
Patti remembers Teresa, known as “Tessie,” who was the sisters’ baby sitter for a time. She was a 37-year-old war bride charged with strangling a boy for whom she was caring. A budding writer, she composed original poems to the warden on her birthdays. Florence, a Northern Paiute from Pyramid Lake, crafted beautiful buckskin Native American doll clothes for the girls. Knowing Florence was the genesis of Patti’s interest in indigenous people’s history, traditions and culture.
“Knowing her influenced how I taught history,” said Patti, a middle- and elementary-school teacher who became a principal in the Washoe County School District. Now retired, Patti does historical research and is chairperson of the Nevada Women’s History Project. The group collects and shares narratives about Nevada women through its website, publications and events such as the sisters’ presentation. Some of the project’s profiles have been published in the Reno News & Review.
Learning each inmate’s story
For years, Patti wondered why her father would go back to his office in the prison every evening to work alone for an hour or two after dinner. When she reviewed inmate files sent to the Nevada State Archives, she discovered that her dad had been poring over the files for every inmate in the prison to understand their lives and reasons for incarceration. He realized, she believes, that “a single event altered their lives forever.”
His concern and empathy for the inmates rubbed off on his daughters. It made an impression on prisoners as well.
Lisa-Marie Lightfoot attended the sisters’ talk and was moved by their story. “What I left thinking about was those prisoners, how they responded to having purpose and family,” Lightfoot said. “They contributed to their community and touched Marcia and Patti’s life, mostly in a positive way.”
Her father’s interest in one woman inmate, Emma Jo—whom he thought had been unjustly convicted for murder—brought Erle Stanley Gardner into the case. Gardner, who would later become famous for his Perry Mason mystery novels, founded The Court of Last Resort, an initiative similar to the modern Innocence Project.
Gardner’s investigation found that the woman whom Emma Jo had allegedly killed had a history of heart problems and had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Not only was Emma Jo innocent; no murder had been committed.
“Emma Jo was freed and married the man who had waited for her while she was in prison,” Marcia said. “Uncle Erle” Gardner became a friend of the Bernard family and chose to have his wedding in their Washoe Valley home after the family left the prison residence, Marcia said.
Prison tours slated for fall
The old state prison is now closed, but tours will be available starting in the fall. After their talks in July, Patti and Marcia revisited the prison for a tour led by Glen Whorton, who was director of Nevada prisons from 2005 to 2007.
The tour highlights the history of different buildings erected over the 150 years that the prison was operating, from its founding as a territorial prison in 1862 to its closing in 2012.
The original prison was built by Abraham Curry, the founder of Carson City and the first warden. He also established the sandstone quarry that provided the stone for the prison, the state capitol, the U.S. Mint building and many structures and residences in Carson City. The Warm Springs Hotel that Curry built on the prison grounds was used by the first Legislature until the capitol building was finished in 1871. Most of the oldest buildings have been razed, and the tour visits those built in the 1920s and later.
The prison has been used for movie sets “because it really looks like a prison. The directors love it,” Whorton said. An Innocent Man, a 1989 movie that starred Tom Selleck, was filmed there. The Mustang, which featured inmates training wild horses, was released in 2019. Earlier film credits include State Penitentiary in 1950 and Deathwatch in 1965.
Some wardens later served the state in other positions. For example, Denver Dickerson and Frank Bell were both acting Nevada governors. Dickerson and his family of eight children also lived in the prison warden’s residence. The Bernards were the last family to occupy the house.
Living in the prison cells
Tour-goers experience the loud clangs of heavy steel cell doors that Whorton said “can take fingers off” and get a taste of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the various cells. One wing of the prison housed older inmates who made their two-person cells homier, Whorton explained. Those cells, made into two-room “apartments,” were assigned to inmates who participated in the “puppy program,” raising and training stray dogs to be offered for adoption.
IF YOU GO: Tickets are available online for Nevada State Prison tours, scheduled on Sept. 3, 4, 5, 17 and Oct. 1, 15, 28, 29, 30 at the prison, 3301 Warm Springs Court, just off East Fifth Street in Carson City. The tours start at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. and last 90 minutes. The cost is $15. Tickets: https://www.tickettailor.com/events/nevadastateprisonpreservationsociety Information about the Ghost Tours (keywords: Nevada State Prison Paranormal) also is online.
One stop on the prison tour may be the most memorable. The glass-enclosed execution chamber, which was a gas chamber later modified for lethal-injection executions, has a gurney equipped with leather straps. The chemicals used for the executions travel in tubes from behind a wall and into the condemned inmate’s veins. The room is chilling, Wharton said, “because it is so foreign to people’s experience.” Nevada State Prison Preservation Society volunteers, some of whom will be conducting the fall tours, posted photos on the chamber walls of all inmates executed there, along with photos of their victims.
A unique feature of the Nevada prison was a gambling casino called The Bullpen, established by Warden Matthew Penrose in 1932, when gambling became legal in Nevada. The inmates, including Joe Conforte, who once owned the Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County, ran the games and reaped the profits. No legal tender was wagered. Instead, brass tokens, which are now collectors’ items, were stamped with denominations from a nickel to $5. The tokens had value only inside the prison.
Prison was part of the community
It was not unusual for prisoners to develop interests and talents to make their time in prison go faster, Whorton said. Some honed skills as upholsterers, furniture-makers, painters, leatherworkers and woodworkers. Some worked at the governor’s mansion.
The prison baseball team was, for years, “the team to beat,” Whorton said. Warden Bernard coached the prison boxing team and also was a mentor for parolees on a San Diego boxing team. An inmate named Clark was a master mechanic, Patti said, and built a sports car from salvaged parts for her brother, Don. Other inmates created the artwork that tour goers may view in the visiting rooms today.
The famous Western artist and writer Will James, who was serving a sentence for cattle-rustling, used his prison term of 18 months from 1914 to 1916 to develop his talent for drawing. His work now hangs in museums and he later wrote and illustrated books, including the children’s tale Smoky the Cowhorse.
The prison industries were self-funded and offset some costs, supplementing the inadequate state funds earmarked for the facility. Over the years, inmates quarried sandstone and stamped out license plates. The main industry in the 1880s, Whorton said, was making shoes to be sold in Carson City. The prison had a mattress factory and a book bindery
“The prison was a great place to work,” Whorton said. “There was something funny, exciting, interesting, sometimes scary every day.”
The exception was working in the guard tower, he added, which was “the most boring job in the world.” Whorton said that inmates were generally not fearful of the guards, but wary of other inmates. “The (cliché of a) brutal warden is a myth,” he said. Prison conditions worsened in the 1970s and 1980s, he said. “It was a difficult situation with more violence, the rise of gangs and racial tension.”
Preservation group works to restore buildings
The tours were developed last year by volunteers as part of repairs and improvements by the Nevada State Prison Preservation Society. That group began in 2012 under president Myron Carpenter, a Douglas County teacher. Whorton, the current president, said the preservation included roof repairs, power restoration, installation of handicapped-accessible restrooms and the paving of walkways. The prison has applied to be designated a National Historic Site pending approval by the State Historic Preservation Office.
Ghosts also attract visitors. Paranormal investigations at the facility have been conducted by Preservation Society member Susan Bernard, a great-granddaughter of warden Matthew Penrose. She leads groups of 20 people from all around the world on tours during the twilight and evening hours. Bernard also is planning ghost walks in the fall. All tour fees go to the preservation of the prison.
The society’s work is funded through tour fees, donations, membership fees. More tour guides are needed (no prison experience required), and the society is soliciting stories from past employees and inmates. Whorton edits a monthly newsletter that is posted on the group’s website, nevadastateprison.org.