As Covid cases surge and push for compassionate release intensifies, prisons turn to foggers

Corrections officials have turned to disinfectant foggers in an attempt to control rapid spread of the coronavirus. Here a fogger is deployed at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. (NDOC photo)

Two minutes.

That was all the time each member of Return Strong, an organization that helps family members of incarcerated individuals, had to read letters from those incarcerated during public comment at Thursday’s Nevada COVID Mitigation and Management Task Force meeting.

“I am a nonviolent felon here on drug charges due to my own abuse,” read one woman rushing through the contents of the letter from a woman incarcerated at Jean Conservation Camp. “I am not a danger to anyone else and no longer a danger to myself.” 

In this case, the reader’s allotted two minutes expired before she had time to finish the entire letter, which detailed the inmate’s fear of the disease rising at her facility and her frustration of still being incarcerated despite being eligible for release.

Other letters read Thursday from those incarcerated across the state had similar stories. 

Many were serving time for nonviolent crimes, within six months of their sentencing ending, and didn’t want to die inside as Covid spreads.

For months, groups have been asking the state to consider compassionate and early release of inmates who are close to finishing their sentences, a move taken by several states since the start of the pandemic.

“We’ve listened to the director say that nobody is eligible,” Jodi Hocking, the founder of Return Strong, said during Thursday’s public comment. “Return Strong has manually gone through corrections’ own parole eligibility list and identified over 1,000 people that could be eligible and be home already.”

Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) Director Charles Daniels has said he doesn’t have the authority to release inmates, but at a Dec. 9 meeting told the Nevada Sentencing Commission “if there are individuals who want to pursue these folks’ release, I ask that they move forward and identify the appropriate people.”

The Nevada Current asked if NDOC was doing any assessment on how many people are within six months of their release dates, but the department didn’t respond. 

The office of Gov. Steve Sisolak, who has been pushed on the subject since March, didn’t respond to requests for  comment. 

In November, the Crime and Justice Institute, the national organization that provides data on incarceration policies and helped Nevada with criminal justice overhaul legislation in 2019, released a list of efforts states have taken to address Covid within correctional facilities. 

Several states, the organization noted, have released thousands of inmates who were convicted for nonviolent offenses and months away from being released. 

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear announced April 2 a plan to release more than 900 state prisoners, 743 of whom were within six months of being released. In July, it released another 700. In August, Beshear commuted 545 people within six months of their scheduled release.

The groups note one action has been taken in Nevada, in April, when the Clark County Detention Center released 10 percent of its population, about 300 inmates, who were incarcerated for nonviolent misdemeanors or technical parole and probation violations. 

Jena, a woman who preferred not to use her last name, is one of  many people with incarcerated family asking the state to consider compassionate release.

She said her husband, who is at Northern Nevada Correctional Center serving time for a parole violation, has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. 

After being released from prison in 2019, the couple moved back home to Georgia. 

This year while living in Georgia, she said he was picked up on a parole violation, which was failing to notify Nevada of his change of address. He returned to Nevada in October to serve his time.

“We are worrying to death about safety and death,” she said. 

Cells have ‘become their tombs’

Even if the state considers compassionate release, the vast majority of those incarcerated, which Daniels said is less than 11,000 people, will still be incarcerated. 

Thursday, NDOC in a release said it’s responding to the drastic increase in Covid cases with steps that include separating inmates into cohorts and using disinfectant foggers to sanitize common areas.

“We are taking measures to mitigate the spread,” Dr. Michael Minev, Medical Director for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said in the release.

But groups say it is not nearly enough.

Since the start of the pandemic, families of those incarcerated along with advocacy and civil rights groups, including the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Mass Liberation Project and the ACLU, have relentlessly tried to get state officials, including Sisolak, to take seriously the spread of Covid at correctional facilities. 

Often ignored, they have stormed public comment sessions, all virtual due to Covid, at meetings convened by the Covid task force, Nevada Sentencing Commission, the Advisory Commission of the Administration of Justice and the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee. 

“We have called and called and called to put the spotlight on this, and it’s time to shift to finding solutions,” Hocking told the Nevada Covid Task Force on Thursday. “We know what the problem is. If the governor, the task force, whoever, needs more proof or more information, we have hundreds of letters and we get another 50 to 100 every day.” 

Positive tests for Covid have skyrocketed within the prison system and currently is reported at 3,003 total cases among inmates and staff.

The total was 187 Oct. 28. 

Dec. 9, when Daniels addressed the Nevada Sentencing Commission, it was 1,551.

According to the health dashboard tracking Covid in state facilities, ten people, including eight inmates and two staff, have died from the virus. 

Daniels first reported deaths during the Dec. 9 Sentencing Commission meeting — it was five then — despite the state dashboard reporting zero at that time, a discrepancy that has concerned advocates and watchdogs.

“We have been misled by the department of corrections and now we’re seeing people are literally dying,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of PLAN. “These aren’t just cages that people have been held captive in, they’ve now become their tombs. This is going to open up the state of Nevada, whose budget is already hurting, to civil lawsuits that will come from Gov. Sisolak’s inability to protect people who are incarcerated.”

The letters from inmates read to the Covid Task Force Thursday illustrated what those inside are going through. 

While the stories are from different Nevada correctional facilities, they all describe inadequate or expired food, lax use of personal protection equipment by corrections staff and inability to go outside.

Many wrote that when they have a chance to leave their cell, it’s usually for less than 15 minutes and they have to choose between a shower and a phone call to their loved ones. 

During the Dec. 9 sentencing commission, Daniels told the committee, which includes several lawmakers, he was taking Covid seriously. 

Thursday, groups and families said the state should launch an independent investigation to look for itself.

Nevada officials “have taken the word of NDOC as the truth,” Hocking said, adding they “continue to take that and not listen to people who are experiencing this.”  

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.