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Assembly Judiciary Committee hears from prisons director, families of those incarcerated

By Jeri Chadwell

On the second day of the new legislative session, members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee heard a presentation from Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) Director Charles Daniels and several of his staff members.

NDOC’s seven prisons, two transitional housing locations and nine camps house a total of 10,079 men and 904 women and are staffed by a little more than 2,500 people to include corrections officers and non-custody employees.

Daniels, who is new to the job having been appointed by Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak in December 2019, has spoken during his tenure about his goals for criminal justice reform and efforts to turn Nevada’s prisons into places where the incarcerated can pick up the types of education and life skills to prevent their recidivism.

In his presentation to the committee, he spoke about these goals and how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said there’s no reason that NDOC cannot be a leader in corrections and that prison accreditation is a long-term goal for the department. NDOC has never been accredited, but Daniels said attaining the status would make the department an industry leader.

According to the American Correctional Association, which has been around since 1870, the standards for accreditation “represent fundamental correctional practices that ensure staff and inmate safety and security; enhance staff morale; improve record maintenance and data management capabilities; assist in protecting the agency against litigation; and improve the function of the facility or agency at all levels.”

Daniels said after things settle down with the COVID-19 pandemic, he’d like his department to be prepared to seek accreditation.

“Then we can move forward and get into the more advanced issue, which is very near and dear to me—and that’s having an impact, a significant impact, on the criminal justice system, racial injustice, things of that nature,” he said. “We’ve got to start with the inmate and ensure that when an individual leaves our organization that there’s a high probability—not a possibility or we’ve given him some training—but that, when an individual leaves us, he’s ready to get back out in society. He will already have secured a position in which he has a livable wage. He will have an industry certificate like an AFC or a driver’s license or CDL or walk out with a degree.”

Daniels said, unfortunately, NDOC has been unable to use CARES Act funding to further its educational and support services like therapy and substance abuse recovery.

“We had to expend an extraordinary amount of CARES Act money just primarily on the medical end, and that sum was substantial, so we did not focus on using the CARES funding for educational pursuits,” he said. “We literally had to ensure that we had enough medical on hand. … Our operations are 24/7. We have over 10,000 inmates, and many of them came to us [who had] problems with drug abuse and/or alcohol consumption. Many of them did not take care of themselves, so we have a large percentage of what I’d consider a vulnerable population. So, anything that we were able to receive went almost entirely toward dealing with the medical portion.”

Educational programing for the few minors who are kept at the Lovelock Correctional Center has also been a challenge.

According to NDOC Deputy Director Harold Wickham, there are between nine and 11 youth offenders at Lovelock.

Assembly member Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod asked how the children’s education has been progressing throughout the pandemic.

Wickham said, “I think we do a good job with what we have, and I hope to do more.  … We have been able to enhance what we do with them by providing in-class education. … We’ve worked with the ACLU and several others to do a study with where we’re at with youth programs. Ideally, I think we can all agree that youth shouldn’t be in adult prisons. It’s not the most productive environment for them.”

One-third of NDOC staff vaccinated, one inmate 

Daniels and his team also discussed COVID-19 vaccination plans for the prison system, including for both prison staff and inmates.

According to Daniels, nearly one-third of NDOC’s staff have received the COVID-19 vaccination to the department’s knowledge but that some additional employees may have gotten the vaccine and decided to keep that information private.  

The department is encouraging its employees to seek vaccination because they interface with the public at large and represent the highest risk of bringing COVID-19 into prison facilities.

Asked by Assembly member Cecilia Gonzalez how many inmates had been vaccinated, NDOC Medical Director Michael Minev said there had been only one so far—an inmate incarcerated at the Ely State Prison who was provided vaccination at the discretion of the White Pine County medical officer.

Corrections officials have turned to disinfectant foggers in an attempt to control rapid spread of the coronavirus. Here a fogger is deployed at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. (NDOC photo)
Corrections officials have turned to disinfectant foggers in an attempt to control rapid spread of the coronavirus. Here a fogger is deployed at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. (NDOC photo.)

However, Minev added, vaccination for other incarcerated people who are interested in receiving it could start by March 1.

NDOC has been conducting surveys with its inmate population to get an idea of how many want the vaccine, and Minev said preliminary results suggest “robust interest.”

At the Lovelock Correctional Center, 69% of inmates surveyed said they want the vaccine. That percentage is the highest of any of the prisons so far. By comparison only 24% of inmates at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in North Las Vegas have indicated an interest in receiving it. Most other facilities have registered interest levels somewhere in between, and Minev said data still needs to be collected for inmates surveyed at other facilities and camps.

Another option for COVID-19 mitigation, and one that some other states have taken up, is compassionate or early release for some inmates who are close to finishing their sentences. Families of those incarcerated in Nevada’s prisons have repeatedly asked for such consideration during the public comment session in meetings for a number of agencies for months. According to a December report by the Nevada Current, released during a sharp increase of COVID cases in the prisons, Daniels said he didn’t have the authority to grant such release and Governor Steve Sisolak had yet to respond.

Allegations of abuse come up in public comment 

NDOC facilities went on a system-wide lockdown late last week following assaults on corrections officers at the Warm Springs Correction Center and High Desert Correctional Center. According to the Nevada Current, a source within the department said the attackers—allegedly members of the Surenos, a gang affiliated with the Mexican Mafia—have been or are being transferred to Ely State Prison, a maximum-security prison.   

When Judiciary Chair Assembly Member Steve Yeager opened the meeting to public comment, the incidences and their aftermath were discussed by members of Return Strong: Families United for Justice for the Incarcerated, a private group comprised of family members of Nevada inmates.

“If you’re not listening and paying attention you will completely miss that there’s another side to every story.”

As a result of technical difficulties at the outset of public comment, the first commenter provided only her first name and no spelling of it. She said her brother was among the inmates who were moved from Warm Springs to Ely following the attacks on corrections officers but that he’d not been involved in any way.

“When he arrived at Ely, he was questioned by some of the officers who kept asking what he knew about recent attacks on officers,” she said. “My brother told me that he had known something happened at Warm Springs before he was transferred, but he didn’t know exactly what.”

According to the woman, corrections officers at Ely cuffed her brother’s wrists so tightly that he lost feeling in his hands.

“He repeatedly told the officers that he didn’t know anything, but they slammed him down against the floor and repeatedly beat and kicked him, along with other prisoners—one of whom was only 18 years old—while they were handcuffed at the wrists and ankles,” she said. “He’s covered in bruises on his shoulders, arms, ribs and legs. He was so afraid because he believed he was going to be killed. One of the men who was beaten along with him was so terrified that he defecated on himself, and the officers laughed when they saw what their attacks had done to him.”

She asked for legislators to push the NDOC to investigate the alleged incident before evidence of the inmates’ injuries from the beating have time to heal.

Jodi Hocking, founder of Return Strong, also provided public comment.

“I was really here today to listen to Director Daniels’ presentation and address the committee about our ongoing concerns regarding the power of the director, accountability, communication and transparency,” Hocking said. “Before we get deep into the legislative session, I want to address the concerns that we have about the state’s lack of oversight into the prison system and the safety conditions of our loved ones during the COVID pandemic and on a daily basis.”

Hocking told legislators that she wanted to make it clear to legislators that they will be working on legislation that will impact inmates.

“And we’re asking you to listen closely because the director will tell you one side of the story that he wants you to hear, and if you’re not listening and paying attention you will completely miss that there’s another side to every story,” she said.  

Hocking added that in the face of lockdowns inside the prisons and the allegations of abuse at Ely, she would not be surprised “if we see continued uprising across the state.”

In November, Return Strong members and the Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union held a virtual conference in which they told members of the media that conditions at Nevada corrections facilities are “a human rights nightmare.”

This Is Reno reached out to the NDOC public information office for comment on the allegations made during the hearing but had not heard back by the time of publication of this story. Should we receive a response, we will update the story.

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