NDOC director ‘spoke in error,’ inmates are being tested for COVID-19

Department won’t say how many

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After initially telling members of the Nevada Sentencing Commission that zero inmates have been tested for Covid-19, the Nevada Department of Corrections is saying some tests have been administered but won’t disclose how many.

During the Nevada Sentencing Commission meeting Monday, corrections director Charles Daniels was asked how many inmates had received tests.

“We have zero tested,” Daniels responded. “As you know, the tests are in very short supply.” 

NDOC spokesman Scott Kelley confirmed via email that the director said he “spoke in error.”

“NDOC has administered tests to offenders if they showed symptoms of COVID-19 or might have come in contact with one of our staff who did test positive,” Kelley added. 

But NDOC is not disclosing the number of test kits administered to inmates, citing safety and security concerns.

Daniels declined to be interviewed for this story. 

Tod Story, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada who sits on the Sentencing Commission, said Wednesday that after Monday’s meeting it was his understanding that zero inmates have been tested for Covid-19, adding he hasn’t received updated information.

The Sentencing Commission “is meeting again on April 29 to follow up on this topic to see how the state is doing with the prison facilities,” Story said. “If there is a correction that needs to be made (about the number of inmates tested), I hope it would be made immediately and the record would be updated as soon as possible.”

Dr. Emily Salisbury, a criminologist who also sits on the Sentencing Commission, echoed Story saying the director should quickly correct what he told members.

“The fact he said it was an error astonishes me,” Salisbury said. “Quite frankly, I would have liked to have had accurate information during Sentencing Commission meeting. It calls into question many other things he has stated during the meeting. The commission and the public have a right to know what is accurate.”

Story said other correctional facilities around the country have been able to report how many inmates were tested as well as how many tested positive. Nevada should be doing the same. 

“If the message is everything is safe and nothing bad is happening, they need to demonstrate that,” Story said. 

The Current asked Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office Wednesday if the governor has been informed how many inmates have been tested for COVID-19 and at what point would he step in to make sure screening is a priority within correctional facilities. The governor’s office didn’t respond.

Five NDOC staff members from various facilities have tested positive. Kelley said no inmate has tested positive.

Daniels also told commission members Monday that NDOC “only has 15 pure COVID-19 tests and over a thousand that test for antibodies.”

“Fifteen kits was an accurate number at that time,” Kelley told the Current in an email. “NDOC has a sufficient amount of test kits at the moment to properly protect our NDOC community. If more are needed, we will use all means possible to obtain more.” 

When asked how many tests NDOC currently has available, he didn’t respond.

Kelley added that the department’s policy is to test when inmates show one of three symptoms: fever higher than 100.4 degrees, shortness of breath, or a dry cough. 

“NDOC medical staff immediately assess the offender and place them in that facility’s infirmary or medically observes them in their cell,” he said. “Medical staff then utilize the appropriate test kit, which is then tested by the state epidemiologist, to determine a diagnosis and treatment. NDOC also alerts culinary so meals are delivered to the offender while they’re in the infirmary or their cell.”

Attorneys, civil rights organizations and criminal justice advocates have been asking for the state to take steps to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated populations in both local detention facilities and the prisons. 

The ACLU, along with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, NAACP and other groups, sent a letter to Sisolak with recommendations. As of Wednesday, Story said the ACLU hadn’t heard from Sisolak or other departments attached to the letter.

Monday’s meeting was the first public discussion on the issue, in which members debated potentially releasing some eligible inmates such as older or medically vulnerable populations or those close to having their sentences expire.

The commission voted 10 to 8 to pass a recommendation to urge Sisolak to convene an emergency meeting of the pardons committee to, at the very least, further deliberate concerns. 

“There are issues as it relates to those early releases that are of concern to me,” Sisolak said during a press conference Tuesday. “I want to do the right thing but at the same time,  there needs to be a release plan. A lot of people are still in there because they don’t have a release plan. I don’t want to put them out with no place to go live. There are not a lot of job opportunities right now. There is not necessarily enough housing or food for these folks. These are all situations that need to be thought through before you have a release of a whole bunch of folks. I’ll need a lot of answers.”

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.