‘No outrage. No concern. No action. Just more silence.’

Groups ask Sisolak, elected officials to address alarming spike of Covid cases in prisons

High Desert State Prison near Indian Springs about 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas is the largest institution in the Nevada Department of Corrections system. (NDOC Facebook photo)

“Do we care about the lives of incarcerated people?” 

The question, which was asked Thursday by Leslie Turner with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s mass liberation project, comes on the heels of an alarming spike of positive Covid cases within the Nevada Department of Corrections. 

In a late evening release Nov. 13, the department reported 424 out of 525 inmates at Warm Springs Correctional Center have tested positive for Covid — the number is now 470.

Turner, along with families of those incarcerated, said at a press conference Thursday the high rates haven’t received the public outcry they should. 

“Do the lives of incarcerated people matter less to Gov. (Steve) Sisolak’s Covid task force?” Turner asked. “When we’re talking about the spikes and talking about how we have to go back on a mini-lockdown — lockdown 2.0 — we’re not talking about all the people who have Covid-19 in the Nevada Department of Corrections.”

Since the start of the pandemic, PLAN and the ACLU of Nevada, along with families of the incarcerated, have asked corrections officials and lawmakers, including Sisolak, to take the threat of a potential outbreak at Nevada prisons seriously.

The groups, along with Return Strong, which represents families of the incarcerated, made that appeal yet again Thursday in a virtual press conference. 

Holly Welborn, the policy director of the ACLU of Nevada, said the governor should use his emergency powers to release those who can safely return to society.

“What we mean by decarcerate is depopulate,” Turner added. “Get some people out. We’ve talked to people who are five months from expiring who are in on nonviolent felonies and have compromised immune systems. Those people should be released and be able to recover at home.”

Sisolak didn’t respond to a request for comment sent Thursday afternoon. 

A fivefold increase in less than a month

Families and advocates worry the lack of response from officials, along with questionable transparency from the Department of Corrections, indicates the pandemic’s impact on correctional facilities is not taken seriously by Nevada policymakers. 

“Not one word from NDOC since their initial press release,” said Jodi Hocking, who founded Return Strong. “Nothing as the numbers skyrocketed and 331 new cases were reported in one day. Not one word from the governor’s office. No outrage. No concern. No action. Just more silence. Meanwhile, families are sitting here choking on our fear. We are hearing stories from our loved ones and know the story that is being portrayed is not the hell they are living through.”

Data from the Department of Health and Human Services showed that at the end of October, there had been 187 confirmed cases of Covid 19 among inmates and staff at correctional facilities. Less than a month later, that number is 884.

A bulk of new cases comes from Warm Springs Correctional Center.

“The numbers in one week have added 540 incarcerated human beings,” Hocking said. “That’s 540 mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. That’s 540 people locked in cells terrified they might die. That’s thousands of family members waiting for calls so that they know their loved ones didn’t die in their cell with no one answering their calls for help. Is that what it will take to get anyone to move? That it’s a death count instead of a positive case count?”

Hocking said the lack of transparency in Nevada isn’t normal and other states offer better data that tracks Covid rates, including hospitalizations, in prisons.  

Nikki Levy, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Nevada, added legal groups shouldn’t have to send records requests to get information. 

In an email Tuesday, NDOC spokesman William Quenga said Covid rates are reported to Nevada Health and Human Services.

When asked if any inmates at Warm Springs had needed medical attention, he said three inmates had been hospitalized because of Covid in the past two weeks but had since been discharged, something not indicated by the Health and Human Services data. 

Along with inmates testing positive, 55 staff have tested positive at Warm Springs. 

The Nevada Current reached out to the union representing prison guards about health and safety concerns in facilities. 

“As COVID-19 continues to spread through our communities, the state must enforce mitigation procedures for state offices and facilities, and management must implement these procedures at all times,” Harry Schiffman, the president of Local 4041, said in a statement. “Workers must continue to have a say in policies and procedures that affect our health and safety, and that of the communities we serve, to avoid COVID spread among state facilities.”

In addition to putting people’s lives at risk, many families at Thursday’s press conference worried the rise in positive cases among staff would also hinder inmates from getting adequate food in a timely manner, as well as medical care. 

Turner wondered if more staff testing positive for Covid meant other corrections officers must pick up shifts to fill in the gaps at other facilities, which could open the door to further exposure to the virus.  

“We are pulling in available nursing and correctional staff from both Northern Nevada Correctional Center and Lovelock Correctional Center,” Quenga said. “Before those employees can return to their ‘home’ institutions, they must complete a 14-day quarantine and a negative COVID-19 test and 72 hours free of symptoms.”

As of Tuesday, Quenga said Warm Springs Correctional Center was the only facility on lockdown.

However, families worried the department of health data will start showing spikes at other prisons and more facilities would be quarantined. 

Many questioned whether the department was properly keeping inmates safe and following safety protocols including wearing masks. Some referenced social media posts from the department with NDOC Director Charles Daniels not wearing a mask. 

“Director Daniels wears a mask at all times unless he’s addressing a large audience or conducting training,” Quenga said in an email. “When necessary he removes his mask and immediately tells the audience he is cognizant of his mask directive and will maintain a minimum of 6 feet between himself and audience members in accordance with social-distancing protocols.”

Missing: ‘decisive action’

Questions around testing and safety protocols, along with proposals around compassionate release for people convicted on nonviolent felonies and are within months of finishing their sentences, were brought up at several Nevada Sentencing Commission meetings starting in March and continued through the Nov. 12 Advisory Commission for the Administration of Justice, where families again begged lawmakers to act

“We have not really gotten much of a substantive response in terms of letters that we sent,” Levy said. “At the beginning of this we requested that NDOC send us their policies and procedures for how they planned to prevent the spread that we’re seeing now.”

The response directed Levy to the website, and left open many questions. 

They weren’t the only group pressing for answers and actions. 

“On March 26 we sent a detailed letter to the governor as well as other key state officials asking for mitigating actions to be taken to prevent an outbreak of this magnitude,” Turner said. “We sent letters. We testified in Sentencing Commission meetings. We sent actual testimony from incarcerated people voicing their concerns over the handling of Covid directly to the attorney general’s office. We wrote op-eds and articles about the conditions inside that were making it impossible to prevent a mass spread like what we’re seeing today.”

But their concerns were dismissed. 

“We were told our concerns and our labor was a mechanism to push a criminal justice reform agenda,” Turner said. “This isn’t about partisan politics. This is, and has always been, about fighting for the people who no one else is fighting for.” 

Turner called the situation with the corrections agency a human rights emergency and urged  “decisive action by the governor and state leadership to preserve the rights of incarcerated people at the same tenacity and resources we’ve put into preserving lives throughout the state.”

“The governor’s office, the state of Nevada, declared systemic racism is a public health threat,” Turner said. “Yes, it is. We can’t just make that declaration and then not act on its consequences. Black, brown, indigenous and poor people are disproportionately behind bars right now. We can’t just turn an eye.”

During public comment for the Advisory Commission for the Administration of Justice, Hocking and family members invited Daniels, who sits on the committee, along with lawmakers to attend a town hall meeting Return Strong is planning for December. 

They hope that after months of silence, they can direct their questions directly to officials. 

“Director Daniels is currently not scheduled to attend the meeting,” Quenga said via email when asked if he would be attending.

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.