Attorneys, advocates call out slow response in dealing with inmates during pandemic

Groups highlight obstacles to find released inmates housing, resources

(Nevada Department of Corrections Facebook photo.)

It has been one obstacle after another for David Kessler as he fights to get his girlfriend, who is three months pregnant, out of the Clark County Detention Center during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Debbie Sutton’s release is conditioned on house arrest, which does not allow her to stay in a weekly motel where Kessler currently lives.

“I have a friend who lives in a monthly apartment who said she can stay with him while I try to save up to get another apartment,” Kessler said. 

While sorting out housing for Sutton’s release, Kessler said they discovered that she had a bench warrant for a $250 traffic ticket for driving without a license or proof of insurance. “I think the court date probably happened while she was in jail,” he said. 

The $1,800 cash bond, which neither had, was posted Wednesday by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Mass Liberation Project.

Sutton is still in custody, and Kessler doesn’t know when she’ll be released.

“This is very dangerous because she is pregnant with my kid and they are putting their lives at stake,”he said. “Every time we jump through one hurdle, they find another hurdle for us to jump over.”

COVID-19’s spread across the country leaves marginalized and vulnerable populations, including those who are incarcerated, even more at risk. 

Advocates and attorneys alike have warned a single confirmed case confined behind bars could decimate its population, which is why nationally there has been a push to release some eligible inmates like those with low-level misdemeanors or being held on cash bail they can’t afford.

“As it has been said again and again, the country faces unprecedented challenges from the novel Coronavirus pandemic,” wrote attorney Kristina Wildeveld in an email to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office. “Those detained in jails and prisons face particularly grave danger. Realistically, the best — perhaps the only — way to mitigate the damage and reduce the death toll for them is to decrease the jail and prison population by releasing as many people as possible.”

Wildeveld hasn’t received any response to her emails.

Leslie Turner, who heads the Mass Liberation Project for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said response to helping incarcerated people has been slow and wrought with challenges.

“They are a forgotten population,” she said. “Expendable.”

PLAN, which received a $25,000 donation to bail people out during the pandemic, is still finding a large number of individuals who could be released don’t have a place to go once they leave jail. 

Housing isn’t a new challenge though. Civil rights groups and nonprofit organizations have long asked for the state and local governments to create more affordable and low-income housing. The current health crisis, Turner said, only underscores why that need was so important. 

“The bottom line is, we needed permanent housing when we said we needed it,” she added. “Now, people are going to die on the streets because there is no housing.”

Turner said she has also seen many cases like Sutton’s where people could be released on house arrest but can’t because their family members, who they are planning to live with, reside in weekly motels. 

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Officer Larry Hadfield said the policy applies to those deemed higher risk offenders. The department isn’t considering changing the policy even during the health crisis. 

Groups like the PLAN and ACLU of Nevada along with local attorneys have been pushing for more to be done to help the incarcerated population. 

Turner provided Nevada Current a list of demands it is preparing to send to Sisolak and other public officials:

  • Expedite clemency, medical parole and compassionate release for elderly or medically fragile inmates
  • Release people on their own recognizance for all misdemeanors
  • Vacate bench warrants
  • Reduce bail amounts
  • Expedite release for people within 90 days of their sentence ending
  • Waive barriers for release such as addressing housing hurdles or obstacles obtaining identification

The group also wants to make sure those who remain locked up are provided face masks, aren’t having prices on commissary items increased, can access healthy foods, and aren’t subjected to restrictive policies such as increased use of solitary confinement to promote social distancing.

Turner said she is also sending Sisolak a list of inmates who are medically fragile and deserve compassionate release. 

Wildeveld previously sent a list of names to the governor of inmates who have health issues or are at-risk because of their age. There hasn’t been a response yet.

The ACLU of Nevada, NAACP, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Arriba Las Vegas Work Center and PLAN sent a letter to Sisolak March 27 asking the governor to step in to ensure Nevada Department of Correction inmates aren’t charged medical co-pays and that phone calls, video calls and e-mails are free during the crisis. 

The letter urged the governor to grant immediate commutations “to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation, and to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years.”

Nevada Current contacted Sisolak’s office numerous times over the last several days, but the office didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Nikki Levy, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Nevada, said the governor hasn’t responded to their letter.

Hadfield said Metro is trying to reduce the number of people behind bars by issuing citations in lieu of arrests except for serious circumstances such as domestic violence or DUI.

“We’ve heard Metro is limiting its arrests but we haven’t seen specific data to back up those claims,” Levy said.

Darin Imlay with the Clark County Public Defender office said the office is also pushing for people to be released on their own recognizance, and reviewing cases where people could be released for time served in some misdemeanors. 

“A lot of cases that may have been a close call and would have erred on the side of keeping them in (CCDC) and setting bail are now erring on the side of (releasing them on their own recognizance),” Imlay said. 

Public defenders San Francisco and other cities have advocated for, and secured, early release of some inmates who have sentences set to expire or are within 60 days of leaving detention.

Imlay said that’s something being discussed in Southern Nevada, as well as releasing people with less than $5,000 bail. “Those cases are being reviewed and determined whether or not it’s appropriate to (release on their own recognizance),” he said. 

Of the 313 inmates at the City of Las Vegas Jail, 258 have less than 90 days remaining on their sentence.

The Current submitted a public records request with Clark County Detention Center to obtain the number of inmates who have less than 90 days remaining on their sentence, but CCDC has not provided the information.

While some judges and attorneys are working on a case-by-case basis, Levy added there should be a statewide course of action to ensure the more people who are eligible are released.

“It’s slow moving and means that it’s one or two individuals released at a time,” Levy said. “We would like to see something more wholesale. We need the governor to step up.”

In addition to being asked about statewide action, both the governor’s office and the Nevada Department of Corrections were asked by the Current how they plan to address potential housing issues — people can’t shelter in place if they don’t have a home — faced by inmates who are being released 

A Corrections Department spokesperson directed the question to Sisolak’s office, which did not respond.

When asked about actions he was taking for the incarcerated population during a press conference April 1, Sisolak said he was exploring all options.

“There is a lot you have to look at,” he said. “You have to look at housing. You have to look at medical care. You have to look at resources that are available. We are exploring that.”

However, Levy countered there is no indication of what, if any, type of review is going on to determine which inmates could be released and what issues they might have issues with housing. 

In her letter, Wildeveld said her office would be willing to coordinate efforts for Sisolak.

“We have the resources to tap into and a wide network of court officers including District Attorneys and defense attorneys to help identify other inmates who can qualify for whatever criteria that can be agreed upon,” she said. “This is an unprecedented situation which qualifies for emergency measures.”

PLAN is working on finding housing for some inmates being released. Turner has reached out to smaller hotels that are still allowed to be open to try to rent blocks of rooms for 60 days. (Clark County said it had issued similar pleas with hotels to house those experiencing homelessness, but struggle to find willing participants.) 

Even if Turner signs a deal with willing hotels or apartment complexes, she worries other problems will arise like access to medical care and testing or being able to provide social services.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.