Jail transfers account for majority of COVID cases within prisons, say NDOC

inmate testing
Inmates at Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center are tested for COVID-19. (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections via Twitter)

The Nevada Department of Corrections is currently reporting one of the lowest rates of positive COVID-19 tests in the country: Only 15 inmates and 35 employees have tested positive.

But the threat of an outbreak is still very real.

All but one of the 15 inmates who tested positive for the novel coronavirus were transfers from outside facilities, primarily municipal jails. Those inmates contracted the potentially deadly virus before entering NDOC facilities, according to NDOC Medical Director Michael Minev. NDOC has been testing new arrivals at High Desert State Prison and Northern Nevada Correctional Center and isolating those who test positive.

The lone reported case of a positive inmate who wasn’t a transfer from an outside facility contracted the virus from an infected employee, something the prison determined through contact tracing.

Minev told the lawmakers on the Interim Finance Committee on Thursday that the current case numbers are a testament to the prison facilities’s rigid coronavirus protocols, which he called “an effective firewall” that has kept inmates safe from outbreaks.

NDOC has tested 10,637 of their 12,368 inmates and 2,363 of their 2,648 employees. That translates to a testing rate of 86 and 90 percent, respectively.

Minev added Nevada’s prison population infection rate sits at .14 percent. That is one of the lowest rates in the country, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said he’d like the state to focus on inmate transfers between facilities to determine whether improvements can be made to catch infections before they are transferred to NDOC facilities.

“There’s a problem before they get to you,” he said, addressing NDOC.

Because inmates are confined to spaces where social distancing is all but impossible, prisons are especially prone to outbreaks. Criminal justice advocates have argued states need to be taking every measure available to keep inmates safe, including significantly reducing the prison population by granting early release to some non-violent offenders. (The Nevada Sentencing Commission in late April declined to recommend the governor allow that.)

In California, San Quentin State Prison is currently experiencing a COVID outbreak. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the outbreak began when 121 incarcerated men were transferred from a Southern California prison that was experiencing an outbreak. Now at least one in every eight inmates at San Quentin is believed to be infected.

In three weeks, the prison went from zero cases to more than 500.

San Quentin may be an especially egregious example of mismanagement, but it highlights just how quickly the virus can spread and overwhelm a system.

When the coronavirus pandemic began, NDOC was criticized for its response, particularly in regards to a lack of testing and transparency issues. At an Interim Finance meeting in early May, lawmakers dug into NDOC Director Charlie Daniels and Minev for having tested only 39 inmates and for not offering adequate personal protective equipment for inmates when they are outside the prison facilities (such as when going to a doctor’s appointment).

Since then, NDOC launched a widespread testing effort, expanded its use of PPE and strengthened its protocols. It also appears to have quietly reversed an earlier position that inmates could not wear face masks due to safety concerns. In a press release issued this week, NDOC boasted about distributing 22,000 face coverings.

These efforts have resulted in additional costs to the public. NDOC requested and received from the Interim Finance Committee an additional $1.3 million in contingency funds to address a Fiscal Year 2020 budget shortfall.

The bulk of that money — $803,083 — is related to increased medical costs for prisoners.

The remainder is to cover revenue shortfalls at Northern Nevada Transitional Housing in Reno and Casa Grande Transitional Housing in Las Vegas. Those transitional living centers automatically take a portion of inmates’ paychecks for “room and board” and that revenue stream dried up as inmates were not allowed to leave for work out of concern they could contract COVID-19 and spark an outbreak at the dormitory-style living center.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.