Sisolak questions prison officials on ‘extremely low’ inmate vaccinations

By: - April 21, 2021 6:12 am

“The Department of Corrections has simply failed,” said a civil liberties advocate. (NDOC social media photo)

Less than 10 percent of nearly 11,000 inmates in the Nevada Department of Corrections are fully vaccinated, officials told Gov. Steve Sisolak Tuesday at the Board of Prison Commissioners meeting.

The low vaccination numbers come despite the department indicating in a March 4 press release, when it began vaccinating eligible inmates, that 46 percent of inmates statewide had signed up to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. 

Sisolak was concerned by the “extremely low” numbers presented to the board and questioned staff about efforts to get inmates and staff vaccinated. 

“The vaccination program for both the staff and the inmates is a priority for me and this board,” Sisolak told NDOC director Charles Daniels. “I want to make sure you reach out to everyone, make them aware of what is available.”

Daniels didn’t elaborate on why they haven’t been vaccinating more inmates and staff despite eligibility, but implied they “started seeing a lot of hesitation” after federal officials urged a pause of administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a week before Tuesday’s commission meeting. The system was relying heavily on the J&J vaccine.

“We are working on our best to increase interest and compliance among our staff and our offenders,” added Michael Minev, the medical director for the department. “We actually had a very robust vaccinated effort at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center but that data has not been compiled.”

As of last week, 565 inmates have received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine and 277 have received both doses of Moderna. Another 688 have received the J&J single dose. There are currently 10,796 people incarcerated in the Nevada prison system.

Families of those incarcerated pushed back against corrections officials, saying their loved ones have requested the vaccine but still haven’t received anything. 

“My husband qualified for the vaccination last week. However, the only thing you’re giving out is Johnson & Johnson and they pulled it,” said Patricia Adkinson during public comment.  

Nick Shepack, a policy fellow with the ACLU of Nevada, called the numbers “abysmal.”

“The Department of Corrections has simply failed,” he said. “This is another failure on part of the new NDOC leadership. It speaks to the same issues that led to the outbreaks where they were unable to get people PPE and they were unable to get people enough food. Now, they aren’t able to get people the vaccine.”

Since the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was pulled, Daniels said they are “now looking at what we can do to get the other (vaccines) into rotation.”

“Everyone will have available to them a vaccine other than the Johnson product if they so desire to get one,” he said. 

The Nevada Department of Corrections began vaccinating staff in December.  

Minev said 33 percent of all staff are fully vaccinated, with 831 having received both doses of the Moderna and another 39 staff members getting the J&J vaccine. Another 1,230, or 48 percent of the staff, have received the first dose of Moderna.

Sisolak said the low vaccination numbers could scrap plans to allow visitations again on May 1, which have been halted for more than 13 months.

“It was my desire, and I expressed to Director Daniels, I would like to open up visitation for our offenders but I can’t do that when it’s only 5 percent who have been fully vaccinated and only 11 percent have gotten the first dose,” Sisolak said. 

Some families speaking during public comment said they have received conflicting information about the resumption of visits. 

“Literally there has not been a word until a few days ago and that has turned into a rumor and gossip mill about what is true, what facility heard what and who heard what,” said Jodi Hocking, the founder of the prison advocacy group Return Strong. “If the department would actually communicate in a way that let people have open access to information that isn’t a security risk without everything being secretive it would be much better.”

A member of Return Strong said she reached out to the family services coordinator an hour before the Board of Prison Commissioners meeting and was told “there were no plans for the start of visitation.”

Daniels said NDOC is providing inmates information about visitations and “putting information out to the general public on our social media sites.”

As Daniels was saying that , none of the department’s social media accounts provided any such information, but by early Tuesday evening there was an NDOC Facebook post announcing visitation would resume May 1.

The Nevada Department of Corrections has been often and repeatedly criticized during the last year for a lack of transparency by civil rights groups, criminal reform activists, private attorneys and elected officials.

As if to underscore the criticisms, Tuesday’s meeting, which was supposed to be streamed for the public, wasn’t. An NDOC official told commissioners, which includes Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, that the video was down.

Shepack said the ACLU is looking into whether this violated Nevada’s open meeting law, noting that since people could call in for public comment he couldn’t say definitively. 

“There are some meetings held during Covid that were call-in only and had no video, but those (conditions were) clearly stated when the meetings were posted,” he said. “We believe that since it was posted that it would be televised on YouTube it very well may be (in violation). It’s problematic even if it’s not. It barred a lot of people from participation. Nobody can go back and watch it.”

It’s not the first time a Board of Prison Commissioners meeting has been scrutinized for sidelining the public. 

“The last Board of Prison Commissioners’ meeting, they tried to set a deadline that was six days before for a written comment,” he added. “It was on Martin Luther King Day. The deadline was at noon, on a holiday, six days before a meeting. It feels intentional that they don’t want the families to show up and call out the director.”

In addition to updates around vaccinations, Minev also told the board 70 people have been “medically evaluated for compassionate release,” a substantial increase from previous years. 

When asked about the 298 program, which outlines compassionate release, NDOC officials told Nevada Current that in 2020 “only three applied, but two of the offenders did not have physician’s letters.”

Hocking previously said those numbers don’t paint an accurate picture adding that people “don’t apply because the process is so difficult and most of (the inmates) don’t even know that they can apply.”

Minev told the board of the 70 people that have been medically evaluated for compassionate release statewide:

  • 22 inmates from Northern Nevada Correctional Center
  • 17 inmates from High Desert State Prison
  • Seven inmates from Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center
  • 14 inmates from Southern Desert Correctional Center
  • One inmate from Warm Springs Correctional Center
  • One inmates from Wells Conservation Camp
  • Eight from Lovelock Correctional Center

He added that as of Monday, “17 of these 70 offenders for compassionate release cleared initial medical screening.

“Of these 17 offenders, nine are being reviewed for compassionate release,” he added. “One offender at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center has been accepted and approved by director Daniels pending the 45-day notification to the County Commission.”

Commissioners were supposed to discuss an administrative regulation on inmate deductions, but took no action. Inmate deductions have been discussed several times at prior board meetings after NDOC began seizing up to 80 percent of funds in inmate accounts last September. 

Money, usually deposited by families and friends, is used to buy necessities such as food and soap or pay for medical needs. Despite the board rescinding the regulation in January, many families called in to say the practice is ongoing. 

Hocking said they submitted 59 letters for written public comment, but none of the letters have been made available on the Board or Prison Commissioners’ website where other meeting agenda items are available. 

Since Senate Bill 22, which is currently being heard in the legislative session, would regulate inmate deductions, Ford suggested they table discussions until the next board meeting. 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.