Incarcerated pay price for prison system staffing shortages
A week away from vaccine mandate, state silent on coping with possible walkouts
Nevada Department of Corrections officials guiding a tour of High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs in 2020. (NDOC Facebook photo)
A severe staffing shortage and COVID restrictions in Nevada’s prisons have left inmates with a lack of food, hygiene, cleaning supplies, and contact with the outside, according to interviews with inmates and letters sent to the Current this year.
Some inmates complain they’ve lost good time credits and seen their release dates pushed back because they say they’re forced to “act up” to get the attention of what they say is a bare-boned staff.
The shortage is expected to worsen on Nov. 1, when Gov. Steve Sisolak’s vaccination mandate goes into effect for workers in state-run facilities serving vulnerable populations, such as hospitals and prisons.
Corrections staff are threatening to walk off the job, a phenomenon occurring throughout the country.
“In late August, the Florida Department of Corrections announced the indefinite closure of three of its main prisons due to short staffing…” reports the Miami Herald.
In September, The Associated Press reported that Nevada correctional officers warned the vaccination requirement “would cause mass resignations, exacerbate staff shortages and make it impossible to operate prisons.”
Covid is the leading cause of death among law enforcement officers, who were among the first groups eligible for the vaccine.
The governor said earlier this month he’s hopeful the state’s correctional officers, who have protested the mandate, will comply.
“We have a responsibility to protect our inmates from COVID,” he said. “They’re in a vulnerable position in a very confined setting, as you’re well aware. We tried to work with our correctional officers, and we’re hopeful that they will get the vaccine when they see the benefit that it has.”
Sisolak says the state is hearing from families “that have difficulty getting in and seeing their family members that are incarcerated. We’re trying to find that balance but it’s important that we protect all of these individuals while they’re under the custody of Nevada.”
The governor declined to say what options he has in the event of an exodus of correctional officers.
“My premise is that they are going to get the vaccine and if they don’t, we’re going to have to take appropriate action,” he said.
Corrections Director Charles Daniels has not agreed to an interview although his staff responded to written questions submitted by the Current.
“While we have been short staffed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the NDOC does not release specific staffing shortages as it may result in a safety or security concern for both staff and offenders,” department spokeswoman Teri Vance said via email.
But staffing shortages have long been endemic to NDOC. In 2018, before COVID, AFSCME, the union that now represents correctional officers, blamed two inmate killings within a month on the shortage of correctional officers.
“The staffing shortages that plague the department are fixable and unnecessary. Each and every officer knows this, and realizes that this blatant disregard for safety is part of a pattern of neglect,” the union wrote in a release.
The union would not comment on the upcoming vaccination deadline.
COVID has taken the lives of three NDOC staff members and 49 inmates, according to the state. Yet a number of guards are ignoring COVID safety mandates, inmates say.
“Staff don’t wear masks. When they take you to the yard or to the showers they’ll stand right next to you. They’re not following any of the state mandates,” Ely Prison inmate Christian Olaidan told the Current during a phone interview in August. “There was just a COVID outbreak. They are really short staffed.”
“The staff barely wear their masks and a lot of staff are out because of COVID,” Ely inmate Kevin McCoy said during a phone interview in September.
McCoy says the guard shortage is resulting in longer stays for inmates.
“I press my button and they don’t answer for two to three hours,” McCoy says, adding he frequently sees guards “sleeping on the job.”
“I have a lot of write ups because I have to trip just to get what I have coming. They don’t give us our six-month issue of clothes and socks. We can only shower every three to four days. They are holding our mail,” he says. “They didn’t pass out my mail until I tripped out. The sergeant came and said ‘I’m not going to write you up because my people aren’t doing their job.’ But they still wrote me up.”
The incident cost him “my good time, my stacked time and pushed my release backwards.”
He was supposed to “go home in August, but they’ve pushed my release date back, and denied my parole for institutional violence. My expiration date is like March, now.”
McCoy, in prison on drug charges, says he has been ‘in the hole’ since May, although the policy prohibits stays longer than 60 days.
Lock ‘em up
Twenty-one states have a higher incarceration rate than Nevada. Louisiana is first at 1,094 per 100,000 people.
Transparent Nevada, a website that tracks public employee salaries, lists 1,908 state correction officers in 2020, the lowest number since 2016, according to state records, and commensurate with a decrease in the prison population during that time –.from 14,153 in 2016 to 11,423 in 2020.
Food is scarce at Nevada’s prisons, according to inmates in a number of facilities.
“They tell us they don’t have enough food to feed us and make you buy from the commissary,” says McCoy. “Some days they give us eggs and oatmeal with milk. Some days they give us sausage, oatmeal, and a biscuit. Some days they give us like three tablespoons of oatmeal and no milk.”
“Menus are regulated through state statute and approved through the State Chief Medical Officer,” Vance of the Corrections Department said.
Breakfast at Florence McClure’s Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas is the same each day, according to a letter signed by a dozen inmates who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by staff — potatoes, canned fruit, cold oatmeal and powdered eggs. Fresh fruit is provided once a month.
A typical breakfast at the state’s men’s prisons consists of four ounces of egg whites, a biscuit, a tablespoon of butter, a half cup of oatmeal, one cup of fresh or canned fruit, and 16 ounces of milk, according to the menu provided to the Current. But because of COVID, inmates say they are routinely served smaller portions on cardboard trays in their cells, rather than in a group setting.
On the late September morning McCoy reached out to the Current, breakfast, usually provided around 5:30 to 6 a.m., had yet to be served at 9:30.
Raw sewage was flooding the floor of Ely’s Unit 1B.
“It’s coming out of the sewer because the drain is clogged up. It’s the third time. It happened two weeks ago. No porters have come out to try to clean it up,” McCoy said.
Vance confirmed the sewer back up.
“Inmates have been moved from the unit and are being served meals on a modified schedule,” she said.
“They don’t give you any kind of cleaning supplies,” says Olaidan.
“They don’t even give you any gloves. I have to stick my hand in the toilet,” echos McCoy.
“There is rarely hand soap in restrooms,” says another letter from inmates at Florence McClure. “A watered down version of ‘Simple Green’ is used to clean. Bleach is a privilege.”
Medical and mental health needs are going largely unmet, inmates say.
“They got psych patients scattered all around. They don’t help them,” says Ely Prison inmate McCoy. “Mental health is supposed to come around and check on them. I have to get the porters to give them coffee to quiet them down so I can sleep.”
Women incarcerated at the Florence McClure Correctional Center in Las Vegas say they are being denied preventive care while treatments for acute and chronic ailments are delayed months.
Vance said she was unable to immediately provide answers to the Current’s questions about conditions in the prisons.
“Some women housed in here are dealing with serious mental and anxiety disorders and it’s especially tough on them,” inmate Leslie Williams wrote from FMWCC. “The situation in here is tense, at best, and the natives are very restless.”
“We’ve been kept in a dark, cold, warehouse for months with a few hours outside each week, without adequate food, health care or access to our families,” wrote another woman at FMWCC. “This isn’t supposed to be a life sentence.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.