Inmates complain physical endurance test keeps them behind bars

Nevada Department of Corrections silent on policy

By: - March 9, 2020 5:51 am
carceral conservation

(Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections)

Inmates at the Jean Conservation Camp (JCC), a minimum-security detention facility for women, complain they are being unfairly required to pass a physical endurance test or lose credits toward their release. 

“The days move away from you,” says inmate Leslie Williams, who says her inability to carry a 45-pound pack three miles within 45 minutes is adding nine days a month to her sentence and delaying her transfer to Casa Grande, a halfway house in Las Vegas. 

The Department of Corrections did not respond to numerous requests for comment on the program.

“You lose credits for good behavior and for being in minimum security,” according to Williams, a 57-year-old who says she suffers from chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder (COPD) and swelling of the legs. “There’s no way I’m going to pass that test and it’s unrealistic to think I could.”

“I’ve tried it three times,” says Heather Mejia, who says she’s been diagnosed with heart failure. “I couldn’t do it.  I was so out of shape.”

“When I got arrested in Washoe County I had two EKGs (electrocardiograms) in jail. The jail didn’t want to report my heart problem because it cost too much for the ultrasound.”   

“The doctor said ‘you have meth heart,’ and put me on a special diet and gave me a multivitamin,” she says. “I didn’t bother reporting it when I got to Jean. I know they won’t do anything.”  

The Washoe County Detention facility did not respond to requests for comment. 

The physical endurance test is a prerequisite for the more than 200 female inmates at JCC who are required to work for the Nevada Department of Forestry.  

Work capacity tests for wildfire fighters are divided into three categories by the U.S. government –light, moderate, and arduous.  

Inmates at the Jean Conservation Camp are required to complete the standard for arduous work.  

“Arduous work involves above average endurance (aerobic fitness), lifting more than 50 pounds (muscular fitness), and occasional demands for extraordinarily strenuous activities,” says the U.S. Forest Service website. “All wildland firefighters perform arduous duty.”

The federal government’s guide for administering the pack test advises officials to “notify candidates 6 to 8 weeks before the test. Send them the Fit to Work brochure that explains the test and provides suggestions for training, clothing, and health screening.”

But inmates at JCC say there is no preparation for the test.

“They lock you in a little unit when you get here,” Mejia says of JCC. “There’s no training. They just put the pack on you and say ‘go.’” 

“The women will never fight fires,” says inmate Mitzi Hendrix, who says there’s no need for the inmates to be able to carry large amounts of weight. “If there’s a fire, they just go and do the food for the men. Or they work in nurseries trimming trees.”

 “You work on the side of the roads and make $30 a month,” says Williams, who complains the NDF jobs are “the only employment programming available. There are a few other positions in the camp, but not enough.”    

Attorney Kristina Wildeveld says the program discriminates against female inmates, who lack the options provided to men.

Wildeveld wrote to the Department of Corrections after a client in custody was “physically assessed and placed into the Forestry Program without a choice.” 

“In the men’s camps, the men are offered a choice to voluntarily enter or opt out of the Forestry Program,” Wildeveld wrote. “NDOC’s incarcerated women, however, are treated differently and are not given an option to opt out of the program.”

Inmates say a memo dated Feb. 5 from newly-named Corrections Department Director Charles Daniels is posted in the prison and promises an end to the practice of tying the physical endurance test to transfers to Casa Grande.  

“No programming will be delayed, denied or hindered due to your involvement in programming with NDF or in-camp work assignments,” the memo says.  

A spokesperson for Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford said Ford was not available to comment.  

The ACLU of Nevada declined to comment on the physical endurance test required of inmates. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.