The Nevada National Guard assisting with vaccinations at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs in June (Nevada Department of Corrections photo).
The Nevada Department of Corrections has a 23% staff vacancy rate for corrections officer and warden positions, nearly double what it was at the start of the pandemic.
Staff shortages, vaccination exemptions and suspended visitations were among the numerous updates provided during Monday’s meeting of the Board of Prison Commissioners.
During the meeting, none of the board members, which includes Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, asked questions or commented on any of the agenda items or updates.
NDOC Director Charles Daniels told the board that in March 2020, around the time Nevada declared a state of emergency, the department had 128 (or 12%) non-custody vacancies, which ranges from food services to medical staff positions, and 176 (or 9%) custody vacancies for jobs such as corrections officers and wardens.
As of Jan. 12, those numbers were 408 (or 25%) and 259 (or 23%), respectively.
Martin Naughton, the acting medical director for NDOC, said there are 64 vacant medical positions. He added “42 agency nurses, phlebotomist, certified nurse assistants and physicians to cover these vacancies” are working overtime to cover these vacancies.
Sisolak didn’t comment on or ask any questions about the staff shortages during the meeting.
In an email, Meghin Delaney, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said the state is “working on ways to recruit and retain employees,” adding staffing issues have long been an issue even before the pandemic.
“The Governor is concerned about the vacancy rates among NDOC and appreciates the work that NDOC employees are doing to provide appropriate care for inmates,” she said. “The Governor’s team continues to meet and work with Director Daniels on measures to help alleviate ongoing issues.”
Many speaking during public comment, including family members of those incarcerated, were expecting officials to address some of their ongoing concerns around protecting inmates and the department’s visitation policy.
At the beginning of January, the department suspended all visitations from friends and families.
Officials cited the rise of covid cases as the reason behind the decision but didn’t present any data Monday to show if efforts had worked.
None of the board members asked questions about the department decision.
“I’m all for keeping people safe, but what are they doing to keep them safe?” said Jodi Hocking, founder of the prisoner advocacy group Return Strong. “You can’t suspend visitation and not address any of the other issues coming up. From March 2020 until they resumed visits (in May 2020) there was a whole outbreak and none of us were allowed in. It’s not coming from us.”
On Jan. 4, around the time visitations were suspended, the Nevada Health Response database showed 6,176 total covid cases. As of Monday, there were 6,907 cases.
Holly Welborn, the policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, said families and friends who visit must go through strict measures beforehand but questioned what the current standards are to ensure staff isn’t bringing in covid.
“So we get to this place where they put the entire prison on lockdown, which is incredibly unhealthy for people who are living on the inside,” she said. “It wasn’t addressed at all in today’s meeting and we wish we could have that clarity.”
In almost an hour-long public comment period, members of Return Strong, as well as corrections employees, spoke on several areas of concerns and deficiencies within the department.
Families members, some who read letters of incarcerated individuals, spoke about struggles around receiving booster shots, attending programming or other religious services or obtaining masks. Many also told numerous stories of those incarcerated failing to get proper medical care.
Hocking worried commission meetings are just about “going through the motions” rather than addressing concerns, getting answers and obtaining accountability.
“They don’t really want public comment, or really want to hear what is being said or address it at all,” she said. “They want NDOC to come in and give a report that nobody questions. There is clearly evidence to the opposite of what they are saying and nobody is even responding. They don’t ask questions. They don’t probe even in the face of all this information.”
In previous commission meetings, Sisolak and Ford have criticized the department’s low vaccination rates. In July, months into statewide vaccination efforts, prison officials reported about 42% of corrections staff were vaccinated, which Sisolak called “atrocious and not acceptable.”
Kim Smith, the acting chief of human resources at NDOC, informed the board there is a nearly 84% vaccination rate among staff as of Monday.
The department is still resolving issues around vaccination exemption requests. The department received 361 requests: 38 medical, 283 religious and 37 medical-religious.
Three were submitted without specifying the type of exemption sought.
“To date, we have approved 57 vaccination exemption requests,” Smith said. “We denied 190 vaccination exemption requests … We also have 86 requests that were appealed.”
Another 28 were rescinded.
There hasn’t been any disciplinary action taken against unvaccinated staff, but that could change in the next few months. Smith said they are beginning the process and could see terminations for unvaccinated employees who have not received exemptions in February or March.
During public comment, Welborn reiterated the ACLU’s position that the state should consider decarceration – reducing the prison population.
Since March 2020, the ACLU along with personal attorneys, legal groups and criminal justice reformers have been calling on Sisolak to use executive authority to reduce the prison population by releasing those convicted of low-level and non violent crimes within six months of their release date.
The Crime and Justice Institute, a national organization that provides data on incarceration policies, has monitored efforts states have taken to reduce incarceration populations during the pandemic. The only effort in Nevada to release inmates was at a local level. In April 2020, Clark County Detention Center released 10% of its population – those who were serving sentences on nonviolent misdemeanors and had completed at least 75% of their time.
Decarceration, some argue, would both alleviate staff shortages and grant greater protections for those incarcerated.
“It goes back to why there has not been an effort toward decareration and addressing COVID-19 in prisons in Nevada as a whole,” Welborn said. “Some of the feedback we’ve gotten on that was there are concerns about decarcerating and there not being enough re-entry services. It was kind of pivoted over to the Nevada Sentencing Commission where there was a failed vote on decarceration. There was some movement on compassionate release but it didn’t really apply to anyone and it was incredibly unclear how an individual would qualify for compassionate release.”
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