NDOC official Bill Gittere issues personal protective equipment to a correctional officer at Ely State Prison in 2020. (Nevada Department of Corrections photo)
The Nevada Department of Corrections has failed to make significant progress toward addressing use of force issues identified more than six months ago, according to state auditors.
Representatives from NDOC say staff shortages are to blame, and the department’s newly seated director is vowing to make the issue “a high priority.”
In March 2022, state auditors released findings from a yearlong review that identified myriad operational issues within NDOC, including an inadequate system for tracking and reviewing use-of-force incidents and related grievances, inadequate training and review of staff and their weapons, and nearly $200,000 in new bodycam equipment being purchased and going unused. At that time, state auditors made 16 recommendations to NDOC, which agreed to implement them and filed a “corrective action plan” in June 2022.
But six months later, state auditors found that none of the recommendations had been properly addressed, despite NDOC being told that “full implementation, or at least significant progress towards implementation” was expected by the six-month mark.
For two of the recommendations, NDOC made no progress.
NDOC Director James Dzurenda and Deputy Director of Operations Bill Gittere appeared before the state lawmakers and auditors Thursday.
It was Dzurenda’s fourth day as the agency’s top brass, though he is no stranger to the department, having served in the role from 2016 to 2019.
Gittere most recently led NDOC, as its acting director, from late September until Monday. He filled that position after the sudden departure of NDOC Director Charlie Daniels, who Gov. Steve Sisolak asked to resign after a convicted murderer escaped from Ely State Prison. In a high-profile embarrassment for NDOC and Sisolak, that inmate, who was later recaptured attempting to board a charter bus, was free for several days before prison staff noticed he was missing.
Gittere blamed NDOC’s lack of action over the past six months on its severe personnel shortages, which he said have reached “one in three officers.”
Those vacancies — which have prompted the closures of at least two NDOC facilities in as many years and were cited as the reason an inmate escape could go unnoticed for several days — have forced supervisory and management staff into daily operational tasks and “not so much pushing the administrative ball forward with these initiatives,” he said.
Gittere added, “That’s not an excuse. We certainly take it seriously. It’s lucky Director Dzurenda has come back to the department and new leadership has been established so that we can not only continue our daily efforts of maintaining public safety and humane treatment of the offenders but also pushing these initiatives forward so we can bring them all to fruition.”
He noted he will soon transition to being warden of Ely State Prison, a position he has previously held.
While Dzurenda let Gittere address the department’s implementation issues over the past six months, he emphasized having a past and future commitment to use of force issues overall. He expressed a desire to reduce the use of force by utilizing other alternatives and better training correctional officers. He acknowledged that many of the people within the state’s prison system have been diagnosed with mental illness.
Dzurenda noted that during his previous tenure as director he ended the use of birdshot in prisons.
“(That) was not an easy task but it was a high priority of mine,” he said. “A continuation of trying to improve use of force is going to be one of my big goals over the next four years.”
Dzurenda’s appointment by Gov. Joe Lombardo was well received by criminal justice reform advocates, who were highly critical of Daniels during his tenure.
Lombardo has said addressing state agencies’ staff vacancy rates will be a priority of his administration, and he has already issued one executive order related to the issue.
Lawmakers did not further question the NDOC representatives, though State Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop, who serves as the audit committee’s vice chair and led the meeting Thursday, indicated she wants to see a future update from NDOC on their implementation plans.
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