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Ombudsman, visitation protections among prison reform legislative victories


by Michael Lyle, Nevada Current

After years of fighting corrections officials for more transparency and pushing back against harsher prison policies, advocacy groups say they saw more advancement toward significant prison reforms during the legislative session than in previous sessions.

Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo has signed several bills lauded by prison advocacy groups, including legislation that ends medical copays, reigns in markups on hygiene items inmates purchase, requires policies to protect transgender and nonbinary inmates, and limits the use of solitary confinement. 

Jodi Hocking, the founder of the prison advocacy group Return Strong, said the state was able to advance reforms due to cooperation with James Dzurenda, the director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, who took the helm in January.

Even with different perspectives on corrections and the use of prisons, Hocking said they were able to find common ground on several bills. 

“We were able to find a way to work together,” she said. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

In past sessions, groups like the ACLU of Nevada and the Mass Liberation Project had worked to not only address the impact of mass incarceration but the rights of those incarcerated, Hocking said.

 But they experienced significant pushback from the former prison administration, led by the Gov. Steve Sisolak appointee Charles Daniels.

“We were in the middle of the Covid pandemic and we were dealing with a (prison) administration that was not communicating, that was not being transparent and not really being held accountable by anybody,” Hocking said.

Daniels’ policies around Covid protocols, deductions on inmate bank accounts and closure of facilities were criticized by lawmakers and civil rights groups alike. But it was his handling of an escaped inmate that led to him being asked to resign by Sisolak. 

But it wasn’t just a new director that made passing these laws possible, Hocking said.

Lawmakers, she said, have a better understanding of the need for prison reforms and recognize groups like Return Strong have insights to what those changes should include. 

“There are core legislators that not only listen to us but really hear us,” Hocking added.  

Independent ombudsman

Hocking worked with Dzurenda to co-present Assembly Bill 452, which adds protections around prison visits and creates an ombudsman to offer independent oversight of the prison system.

As the bill was being drafted, Hocking said the group was ready to “go all in” on protecting visitations and leave the ask for an ombudsman to a future session. She credits working with Dzurenda as the reason both provisions were included in the bill and passed by the legislature. 

The idea of an independent oversight for prisons has been proposed for years by other criminal reform advocates.

“Over the past couple of years we have started to do a lot of research and studying on what are those principles that make good oversight,” Hocking told lawmakers in June. “One of the things is that prisons need layers of oversight. It’s not one thing or one type of oversight that will fix every problem.”

Hocking said Daniels wouldn’t even meet with groups to hear proposals around creating an ombudsman. But Dzurenda embraced it.

He told lawmakers this session that other states, including Connecticut where he previously worked, had an independent oversight and it helped reduce problems.

“States that have done this do show a reduction in litigated cases,” he said. “Right now, we have 662 cases in litigation against the department. Those could be reduced dramatically if we do something different.”

Something different, he added, would be to create an ombudsman.

Some of the cases being litigated against the department had to do with due process around disciple issues, he said. Those incarcerated have to follow a process for responding to disciple actions and could sue if that process isn’t followed.

“That should be something the ombudsman would be able to monitor and focus on so everything is following the steps,” Dzurenda said. “A lot is done by accident but when you have an ombudsman following it, it could put things back in focus or change the direction of the grievance, discipline or appeal so it does not get to litigation.”

Hocking said the ombudsman would also have access to the prison’s computer system and could monitor for patterns or abuse.

“If it’s food issues, if it’s correctional abuse, depending on what it is they would be able to see those patterns and make recommendations to the state about how to address those,” she said.

The bill also puts requirements on how the department notifies people when it cancels visitations.

“People should not fly across the country or fly from another country or even drive from Vegas only to find a sign on the door that your visit was canceled,” Hocking said.

Though she said the department has improved and decreased the number of cancellations under Dzurenda, she still thought there needed to be a policy codified in statute.

“It would require if the notice was 72 hours or longer, the deputy director would have to approve so people would know it isn’t a random officer canceling the visit,” Hocking told lawmakers in May. “And if it’s under 72 hours the director would have to approve it to make sure that administration was in support.”

Dzurenda said “almost all visits are canceled at the last minute” due to staffing shortages and said there still will be cases where people aren’t given enough time before visits are canceled.

He still agreed there should be a process to notify people as soon as possible “because there are chances for the afternoon visit we could save someone driving from Vegas to Indian Springs or Phoenix to Las Vegas.”

The bill requires a quarterly report submitted to the board of prisons commissioners on how many cancellations there were by each facility and why.


Another victory Hocking pointed to was legislation that prevents the department from implementing harsh restrictions around sending and receiving mail.

In August, Daniels sought to prohibit certain mail, including greeting cards and colored drawings being sent to people who are incarcerated.

The proposal was shot down by Gov. Sisolak.

Daniels said the policy was intended to prevent contraband from entering facilities, but offered no data to support the need for restricting mail.

If in the future the department adopts regulations that restrict inmates from receiving mail, Assembly Bill 121 first requires the director to submit a study “and any evidence or data” that justify the decision.

“There is a clause that the director could take away the mail if he could prove it is the way drugs are entering the facility but as a last option,” Hocking said.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that at least 17 states have adopted regulations placing restrictions on mail and greeting cards.

Data has shown those policies are ineffective at stopping drugs from entering facilities.

Vera Institute of Justice reported in 2022 that “of the 3.1 million contraband items that entered the prison system (in Florida) from January 2019 to April 2021, only about 1 percent came in through mail.”

“There are national people who work in the field and we are the only ones who have won protections for inmate mail,” Hocking said. “Everybody has lost.”

The bill also requires the department to refill prescriptions in a timely manner.

Curbing commissary charges

Several bills that were enacted were recommended by the standing Interim Judiciary Committee. They include a bill to rein in costs associated with incarceration, such as pricy commissary items and medical bills.

In addition to limiting excessive charges on hygiene items purchased by those incarcerated, Senate Bill 416, referred to as the cost of incarceration bill, ends medical copays and “man down” fees, when those incarcerated require emergency medical services.

Advocates said these costs put a “backdoor tax” on families who have loved ones incarcerated and often have to send money so items can be purchased.

Hocking said the effort to address costs started in 2021 when lawmakers passed legislation to restrict how much the department of corrections could take from inmate bank accounts.

At the time, Return Strong figured some of the policies around marked up commissary items and costly medical services were the result of predatory behavior from corrections officials.

More research showed that because lawmakers underfunded the department it was forced to make up its budget by charging higher fees on commissary items and medical services.

Nick Shepack, the Nevada state deputy director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, told lawmakers in May that it comes down to who pays for the cost of incarceration.

“We rely on incarceration as our corrections and as an essential government service,” he said. “Yet a small portion of Nevadans, the families who have done nothing wrong except love someone who is incarcerated, are paying for these positions and charged exorbitant amounts of money.”

Dzurenda ended commissary mark ups earlier this year but the legislation codifies the policy around hygiene items.

Solitary confinement

The session also saw the state take steps on limiting the use of solitary confinement.

Senate Bill 307 requires the department to implement the “least restrictive manner” when separating inmates from the general population, and doing so for the “shortest period of time safely as possible.”

The bill restricts solitary confinement use to 15 consecutive days, after which a multidisciplinary treatment team, including a mental health clinician, would conduct a review to determine where to place the inmate.

In a statement, Athar Haseebullah, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said by enacting the law the state is “adopting the Mandela Rules into practices.” The rules, adopted by the United Nation, are in reference to the former South African President Nelson Mandela.

“Solitary confinement is a brutal, barbaric practice, and we have been working for more than a decade to bring awareness to this issue and to create change,” Haseebullah said. “We will continue to work toward a system that truly puts its energy into rehabilitating people instead of subjecting them to irreversible harm.” 

Other bills that passed include: 

Senate Bill 351, which seeks to change visitation policies that prevent people past criminal record from being approved. Senate Bill 153, which requires the NDOC to set up regulations around housing, custody, medical care and mental health treatment for trans and gender nonbinary treatment of people incarcerated in Nevada’s prison system;Assembly Bill 292, which requires the department to provide women unlimited feminine hygiene products upon request, prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant inmates and expands medical and behavioral health services for pregnant inmates.

Nevada Current
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