Update: After this story was published, the Nevada Department of Corrections announced in a press release late Friday afternoon that 424 of the 525 inmates at Warm Springs Correctional Center have tested positive for Covid-19.
“I am terrified by what’s going on in the Nevada Department of Corrections.”
“When I was finally able to talk with my loved one after quarantine, his words gave me chills.”
“He feels like he was put in his cell to die.”
“No one knows what’s going on, and it’s just this feeling of panic.”
Often fighting back tears during Thursday’s Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice meeting, members of families of incarcerated individuals pleaded with commission members, which includes state lawmakers, to secure transparency from the Nevada Department of Corrections as Covid cases surge in Nevada and the nation.
Their concerns follow an increase in Covid cases at the Nevada Department of Corrections facilities, including 93 inmates who tested positive at the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City, according to a Nov. 6 release.
“Considering the rise of staff positivity and Nevada’s climbing rate of transmission coupled with close systems such as a prison, the current situation being portrayed seems implausible,” said, Nicole, one member of the group Return Strong, which includes family members and advocates.
Several of the family members making public comments did not provide their last names.
“In fact I would suspect that the issue at hand is much larger than is being said by NDOC. Warm Springs may just be the tip of the iceberg,” Nicole said
Issues with the department of corrections go beyond Covid.
Jodi Hocking, who founded Return Strong, said since NDOC Director Charles Daniels was appointed by Gov. Steve Sisolak last December, the department has lacked transparency and carried out policies that have been harmful to inmates.
Daniels is part of the Advisory Commission on the Administration and attended the virtual meeting, but didn’t respond to anything said during public comment.
“The way we treat incarcerated individuals has become even more archaic,” Hocking said. “In the last five months, there has been at least three major changes in issues where he has made unilateral decisions without consulting the appropriate people, like closing the camp at Ely, implementing a revisions to AR258 without the Board of Prison Commissioners approval and now numerous concerns to how Covid is being handled.”
Referencing the victims’ rights constitutional amendment known as Marcy’s Law, Daniels implemented Administrative Regulation 258 on Sept. 1 that allowed officials to take up to 80 percent of funds in inmates’ bank accounts. The Board of Prison Commissioners halted the policy change in October, but there wasn’t any indication how many inmates had been affected.
Also in October, lawmakers also admonished Daniels for quietly closing the minimum-security prison facility Ely Conservation Camp in July without bringing the Legislature into the loop.
Legal groups and criminal justice advocates have also criticized Daniels for his handling of Covid, including providing incorrect information on testing and voting against a Nevada Sentencing Commission proposal to send a letter urging state officials to, at the very least, discuss how to reduce the prison population during the pandemic.
Members of Return Strong said anytime they try to get answers, they also receive pushback.
“NDOC has a bad practice of hiding everything under the guise of security,” said Pam Pappas, whose son is incarcerated. “We want accountability. Nevada is lightyears behind other states the way we treat our inmates and the scrutiny we give NDOC.”
In its Nov. 6 press release, NDOC confirmed seven staff at Warm Springs also tested positive for Covid-19 and that the entire population, 525 inmates, was expected to undergo testing. It hasn’t sent out any additional information about updated cases.
The department didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“NDOC’s practices were a catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Charrise, another member of Return Strong. “For months they have said it was under control and that they were only trying to protect (inmates).”
She told the committee Thursday about the fear while waiting to hear from her husband, who is incarcerated at Warm Springs.
“The last thing my husband said was ‘I’ll call you tomorrow night,’ but that call never came” the following evening, said Charrise. “I woke up to news the next day that 93 inmates and seven staff members had tested positive for Covid. The feeling of helplessness, fear and anger were overwhelming … How would you feel not knowing if your loved one got Covid or not knowing what their health status was? How would you think you would handle the stress of waiting for that phone call?”
Families are also concerned about the protocols and prevention being followed throughout corrections facilities.
In its release, the department said Warm Springs employees are required to wear N95 masks at all times, but family members said they’ve heard that’s not being enforced at all facilities.
Hocking said the Department of Corrections needs more oversight.
“We are pleading for support to have a voice at the table,” Hocking said. “Many states have inmate councils on the inside and family councils on the outside as well as an ombudsman to help navigate systems. Yet, Director Daniels will not entertain one conversation with us.”
Return Strong is also putting together a town hall in December with families of the incarcerated, and asked Daniels to attend.
In the meantime, families will still worry about the health of inmates.
“My loved one has an out date,” Charrise said. “He deserves to make it to that date.”