(Ed. note: After this story was published April 14, the Department of Corrections said that Director Charles Daniels “spoke in error” while answering questions during a state Sentencing Commission meeting, and an undisclosed number of inmates have been tested.)
What should Nevada do with its incarcerated population amid a global health pandemic?
The question, which has been raised on the state and federal level with the rise of COVID-19, was publicly debated for the first time in Nevada Monday during a six-hour state Sentencing Commission meeting.
Nevada’s answer: To be determined.
With a vote of 10 to 8, the commission narrowly passed one recommendation that urges Gov. Steve Sisolak to convene an emergency meeting of the pardons committee to, at the very least, discuss potentially releasing of some eligible inmates such as older or medically vulnerable populations or those close to having their sentences expire.
Even if Sisolak goes forward with a meeting, committee members said there are numerous steps that need to be taken before any actions are implemented.
Commission member Dr. Emily Salisbury, a criminologist and UNLV professor, argued the state needs to act with urgency to mitigate any potential outbreak. She along with defense attorney Russell Marsh spoke of fears from many behind bars who worry one case could decimate the population.
“Where was that fear expressed when they were in the commission of a crime and where was that fear in reference to their victim of those crimes?” asked Charles Daniels, the director of the Nevada Department of Corrections.
As COVID-19 cases have increased and the death toll has risen, groups have urged governments to take effective measures to ensure prison and jail populations are protected and, if possible, aren’t confined behind bars where they could more easily succumb to rapidly spreading infections.
Zero inmates within the Nevada Department of Corrections have been tested for COVID-19, despite the fact five staff members at various facilities have tested positive. (Daniels would later say through a department spokesman that when he said zero inmates had been tested, he “spoke in error“). Daniels assured the commission that he is taking steps to screen, and if needed, isolate inmates with symptoms.
“The fact we haven’t had a positive test doesn’t mean that we’re not actively seeking it,” he said. “We want to find the active people if they are in there so we can sequester them and get them treated.”
About an hour after the commission meeting ended, the Clark County Detention Center confirmed its first inmate was being treated for the virus. Chuck Callaway, the police director and lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and vice chair of the Sentencing Commission, hadn’t indicated during the meeting that there were any potential cases at the detention center.
While the Nevada Sentencing Commission didn’t present any plans or recommendations of its own, Salisbury put forth the “SAFER” Plan, a list of recommendations compiled by national criminologists, psychologists, criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people.
Suggestions include waiving all medical copayments for inmates, making hand sanitizer available and finding alternatives to visitations.
The plan also recommends suspending jail for technical violations, releasing elderly and vulnerable inmates and adopting alternatives to incarceration. (In Nevada, warrants for those who committed technical violations while on parole have since been quashed to prevent more people from becoming incarcerated during this time.)
By releasing some eligible folks, some noted that it not only allows people to isolate and protect themselves from catching the virus but also decreases the population of prisons and jail to mitigate any potential spread.
Daniels, who said he hadn’t read the SAFER Plan prior to the meeting, fought back against the notion that decreasing the prison population would circumvent a potential outbreak.
“In my opinion, there is no correlation between releasing inmates and increasing public safety or the safety of the inmates in the confines of my facility,” Daniels said. “I would make the opposite point. If I were to release 500 inmates or 1,000 inmates, where exactly would they go? There are no places to live. There is no food. There are no jobs … They would have their liberty restored but to what extent. What are they going out to?”
He argued that many of those releases would reoffend. “There is not just a possibility of recidivism, there is a probability,” he said.
While it wasn’t discussed at the meeting, Metro previously reported an overall decrease in crime in Southern Nevada even as it has worked to reduce the population at the Clark County Detention Center.
“We can’t seize this as an opportunity to further sentencing reform or criminal justice reform if we don’t have a plan,” Daniels added.
Other members of the committee echoed the sentiment that the lack of resources or housing should be considered in any next steps of releasing some inmates.
“I’m personally of the opinion that it would be safer for staff and for the inmates to be released even if they don’t have a place to go because it gives people freedom of choice,” Salisbury countered.
Nevada Parole and Probation chief Anne Carpenter said there are nearly 400 inmates within the Nevada Department of Corrections who have already been granted parole.
“But for a variety of reasons, they aren’t getting out at the moment,” she said.
The list includes people waiting for beds to open up at in-patient facilities or those trying to find housing.
“We don’t have enough housing at all so I’m hoping that in the future our state will look into that,” she said.
The largest group of people, Carpenter said, haven’t secured conditions for parole, which could mean family members they thought they would live with declined or their parole plan hasn’t been approved. She added the department is seeing what they could do on their end to speed up the process.
Salisbury, who pointed out the commission hasn’t received input from incarcerated individuals, requested permission to interview inmates to collect information from those who could be eligible to be released.
“I’m wondering what the expectation would be if you’re asking inmates what they would say about wanting to leave and go home,” Daniels responded. “I hear that every time I go in. They all want to go home.”
Ultimately, Daniels argued he didn’t have the authority to release inmates, saying it was in the hands of Sisolak and lawmakers.
“The realities of it all is that our executive branch and Legislature creates the public policy that we follow,” he said. “I don’t have the authority, except under limited circumstances, to effectuate a release and even during those times they’re very stringent.”
Sisolak hasn’t put forward any plans for how to deal with the incarcerated population or hasn’t specified plans to release eligible inmates.
The next time the Nevada Sentencing Commission is scheduled to meet is April 29.