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Prisons cracking down on visitation to stem COVID-19 while ignoring unvaccinated staff, critics say


by Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
August 26, 2021

Families and prisoner advocacy groups are questioning Nevada Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 mitigation efforts they say places the burden of preventing outbreaks on inmates and those visiting rather than on corrections staff, which have struggled to boost vaccination rates. 

In order to control COVID-19 spreading within Ely State Prison following multiple positive cases among staff and inmates this month, the facility recently suspended visitations.

The Nevada Department of Corrections reinstated visits in May after a 14-month hiatus during the thick of the pandemic.

“We’re forced to have plexiglass, wear masks and get COVID tested before we come into the building for visitations,” said Jodi Hocking, founder of the prisoner advocacy group Return Strong. “Corrections officers have way more access to people than we do. They will end visitation before they ever enforce anything with their corrections staff.”

Chris Peterson, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Nevada, said NDOC should be looking at the conduct of employees and their role in positive COVID-19 cases rather than inmates and those visiting. 

“Unless they can show it’s visitations that led to an outbreak at that facility, shutting down visitation is wrong. It’s a move that’s shifting the blame to the blameless,” he said. “Don’t blame the inmates or their families for the failures of employees.”

In an email, Teri Vance, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department Corrections, said 55% of staff, or 1,332 out of 2,427 employees, were vaccinated as of last week. 

NDOC reported to the Board of Prison Commissioners during a July meeting that only 41% of 2,393 staff were vaccinated, a rate Gov. Steve Sisolak called “atrocious and not acceptable.” 

At an April meeting, NDOC Medical Director Michael Minev said only 33% of inmates were fully vaccinated at the time. 

NDOC’s current inmate population is 10,272. The vaccination rate of those incarcerated increased to 69% from 51.7% in July, according to NDOC.

As a response to low vaccination rates and to combat the rise of COVID-19 cases brought on by the Delta variant, the state mandated this month that all unvaccinated state employees must submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. 

Since then, Vance said 13 members of NDOC staff have tested positive, two of whom were at Ely State Prison. 

The first positive case among staff was confirmed Aug. 13. 

“After conducting contact tracing it was discovered that staff had visited multiple areas of the facility which resulted in modified operations,” Vance said in an email. 

The second staffer tested positive Aug. 20. Two inmates at Ely from separated units contracted COVID-19 as well, and their individual units were placed in quarantine. 

“…Closing visitation isn’t going to change anything for COVID. They need to hold their staff accountable.”

Vance wouldn’t disclose the vaccination status of the staff and inmates who tested positive at Ely State Prison. 

Visitations at Ely State Prison, she said, were temporarily suspended “as a precautionary measure during modified operations.”

Peterson said arbitrarily shutting down legal visits raises questions on whether inmates are having their constitutional rights violated. 

Families are concerned more prisons could cancel visitations.

After more than a year of not seeing her fiance who is incarcerated at Lovelock Correctional Center, Elizabeth Quintero, a member of Return Strong, was eager to begin visitations in May. 

She goes as often as NDOC allows, which is every two weeks. 

Quintero describes safety protocols as disjointed, saying too often corrections officers who are doing security screenings or observing visitations aren’t properly masked, if they are masked at all. 

“It’s frustrating. We are following everything to make sure we’re keeping them safe, but the staff isn’t,” she said. “Why are we doing all of that if they can still get it from the staff that’s there? The burden and punishment is all on the families and the inmates.”

Talking with her fiance, Quintero has already heard rumblings visitors could be restricted at Lovelock similar to how it has been implemented at Ely. 

“I got tested to go in. There is plexiglass in the middle of us. We both have masks on. There is zero contact,” she said. “I feel they will get rid of visitation first. But visitation was closed for 14 months and how many inmates got COVID? It’s not us. I feel it’s a really perfect example that proves closing visitation isn’t going to change anything for COVID. They need to hold their staff accountable. At my job I have to wear a mask. If I don’t, I get reprimanded.”

In October, when no facility allowed visitation, COVID-19 rates drastically spiked. 

The number of COVID-19 cases jumped from 187 Oct. 28 to 1,551 Dec. 9. The Nevada Health Response database shows there have been 5,596 COVID-19 cases through NDOC.

Following the increased dissemination of vaccines, NDOC reopened its facilities for visitations in May. 

Vance said NDOC is following safety protocol and in addition to weekly COVID-19 tests mandated by the state and a weekly rapid test, “staff and offenders must wear N95 masks when indoors and maintain social distance outdoors.”

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.)

“NDOC safety protocols continue to include disinfectant foggers and other sanitation methods,” she said. “Modified visiting requires visitors to pass a COVID-19 test, and both visitors and inmates are required to wear a mask throughout the visit. No touching is allowed.” 

Hocking and Quintero say too often when they visit, these mitigation measures aren’t being followed by staff they interact with. 

“They expect a certain thing from inmates as far as masking and vaccinations and from the visitors as well, but the staff really has no accountability. They can do anything,” Quintero said. “If you walk in and only look at the staff, you would think the pandemic is over.” 

But the problem, Hocking said, is not just visitations. She said it’s about general accountability. 

“Whether visitations are open or closed, as long as your policies are consistent with keeping our loved ones safe, healthy and alive, that’s fine,” she said. “Our problem is (NDOC) uses visitations as a tool to make things look good and the policy doesn’t even actually make sense.”

She added it’s not just about holding NDOC accountable.

“They blatantly defy everything,” she said. “At the end of the day, Gov. Sisolak is in charge of them. We’ve given Governor Sisolak a bye in all of this situation (while) trying to hold (NDOC Director Charlie) Daniels accountable. But ultimately, the only person who can really hold Daniels accountable is Sisolak.”

Sisolak didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Vance said visitation isn’t ongoing at every facility, but wouldn’t confirm what other facilities have also suspended it. 

“People treat visitation as a luxury, but it’s not. If you want to rehabilitate people you have to give them something to hope for,” Peterson said. 

Suspending visitations, he said, damages families and “destroys an inmate’s ties to the outside.”

“You can keep saying it’s because of COVID,COVID,COVID, but you better be certain before you use this form of punishment,” he added. 

As long as visitation remains open at Lovelock, Quintero will continue following protocols because she wouldn’t want to risk getting anyone sick. 

“I would love to hug him, play games with him and hold his hand like how it was before, but I don’t want to take that into him,” she said. “It would be terrible if I went to visit and there were no restrictions and I found out later I was sick and he got sick. I don’t want that.”

Even though her fiancé already gotCOVID-19 and has since been vaccinated, his biggest fear beyond another outbreak is losing the chance to see Quintero regularly. 

“His fear isCOVID spreading and the (NDOC) closing visitation again,” Quintero said. “That was really hard on the inmates mentally. They were not only locked down 24 hours a day, they couldn’t see their families. Not seeing anyone for that long is really hard on them.” 

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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