By GABE STERN Associated Press/Report for America
RENO, Nev. (AP) — At least two dozen people are on hunger strike over conditions at a maximum-security prison in rural eastern Nevada, prison officials and an advocacy organization said Tuesday.
The strike was launched Thursday by people incarcerated at Ely State Prison who are fed up over what they say are inadequate food portions and shortages in the prison commissary, among other grievances, said Jodi Hocking, executive director of the prisoners’ rights group Return Strong. She said they’re also protesting longstanding problems at correctional facilities across the state.
The Nevada Department of Corrections said in a statement that the number of people on hunger strike fluctuates each day — as of Monday there were 27 people participating. Hocking put the number closer to 40.
The corrections department said the strike is “mostly in protest of the food portions being served but also includes conditions of confinement, property issues and disciplinary sanctions.”
Hocking said “the straw that broke the camel’s back” was the department’s switch several months ago to a new food vendor that serves smaller portions. She said some prisoners “can’t identify what type of lunch meat” they are being served. A spokesperson for the food vendor, Aramark, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The corrections department statement said it was auditing food portion sizes at all facilities, and reviewing its contract with Aramark. The people participating in the hunger strike are “being monitored for weight and other health-related statistics.”
Still, Hocking said, “How the hunger strike started was really not so much like a specific incident, but a long build.” Her organization is in touch with several of the participants, and is made up of prisoners’ family members and the formerly incarcerated.
Many prison conditions have not changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. Once the pandemic largely subsided, the corrections department has dealt with critical staffing shortages that have kept conditions poor, including increased lockdowns and modified operations, she said.
Among several issues, the hunger strike aims to end the “continued and extended” use of solitary confinement, halt the use of group punishment, make sure prison staff don’t retaliate against prisoners who file grievances, and generally address health and safety concerns in all Nevada correctional facilities. Those include mold, heating and air conditioning problems and rodent infestations, according to a set of demands.
The hunger strike was first reported by KLAS-TV in Las Vegas.
It’s the latest episode in several negative developments for the state corrections department.
In September, department head Charles Daniels resigned at the request of Gov. Steve Sisolak in the wake of a prison escape by a convicted bombmaker that went unnoticed for four days.
Just over a month later, Daniels accused Sisolak’s staff of wanting him to reshape accounts of the escape. The governor’s chief of staff said Daniels demanded $1 million while threatening to go public with allegations and costly litigation, providing a letter from Daniels’ attorney detailing the payment request.
The department’s medical director also resigned in September after two prisoners died of suicide.
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow Stern on Twitter: @gabestern326.