By GABE STERN Associated Press/Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A group of prison firefighters said their feet burned and their socks melded to their feet during a gruesome fire clean-up assignment that left several unable to walk, stand or shower without assistance for days, according to a new lawsuit.
Still, the firefighters were “mocked and ignored” when they initially told their supervisors of what would later be determined as second-degree burns and blisters, according to the Thursday filing by the ACLU of Nevada.
The 35-page civil complaint alleges negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of state and federal constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment. It seeks at least $700,000 in damages for seven plaintiffs in Nevada, several changes in training and policy, and discipline for state employees “whose negligence and/or intentional conduct results in injury to … people required to work while incarcerated.”
The firefighters were trained at Jean Conservation Camp, the only training facility owned by the Nevada Division of Forestry designed for incarcerated women. State corrections employees supervise the camp.
The defendants include the Nevada Division of Forestry and Department of Corrections, their respective department heads and several forestry employees who were on-site and allegedly did not act on complaints.
Division of Forestry and Department of Corrections officials declined Thursday to comment, citing pending litigation.
The lawsuit describes a morning of cleaning out “red-hot embers, churning burning soil and ripping out tree stumps” during a wildfire clean-up assignment in an area carpeted by hot soil and burning embers in April 2021.
The lawsuit alleges that when the sole of one plaintiff’s boot melted off from the heat, a Nevada Division of Forestry supervisor duct-taped it back on and told her to continue working. When another plaintiff started crying from pain, the supervisor allegedly said, “You can keep crying as long as you keep working.”
None of the seven plaintiffs received medical treatment that night, the lawsuit alleges, in what the ACLU described as the state’s “dangerously deficient training and equipment” for incarcerated firefighters.
Two days later, the complaint said, four of the seven plaintiffs were taken to a Las Vegas hospital where they endured a painful procedure, with no medication, involving “hospital staff (cutting) away all the dead skin and tissue from burns on the bottoms of plaintiffs’ feet.”
The ACLU is requesting a trial by jury.
“We filed this case to make sure no one is ever treated like this again,” ACLU of Nevada legal director Chris Peterson said in a statement. “Our clients are not disposable. These are human beings, and they have rights.”
In Nevada, certain incarcerated people are eligible for wildland firefighting under certain requirements and are paid $24 per day.
The ACLU called the current three days of in-class training before incarcerated firefighters are sent to fire scenes inadequate. The lawsuit said that as of 2021, prison firefighters made up about 30% of the state Division of Forestry fire response capacity.
“The training does not include training in identifying and reporting firefighting-related injuries,” the court filing said.
The ACLU also said there should be a way to report negligent supervision without fear of retaliation, and that there should be a policy to get newer equipment for firefighters.
Associated Press writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
__ 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 him on Twitter: @gabestern326.