Cannizzaro challenges prison director on inmate money seizures

By: - March 4, 2021 4:12 pm
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“We are starting the same pattern again. We don’t want to see the same numbers of sickness, illness and death occur again for something we’ve already seen happen before.” (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections)

NV Dept of Corrections
NDOC’s seizure of money given to inmates by family members has landed the department in the hot seat. (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections)

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, a prosecutor by trade, knows a thing or two about Marsy’s Law, the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018.  

“To me, Marsy’s Law isn’t the reason we see percentages changing,” Cannizzaro said Thursday of an unannounced decision last year by Department of Corrections Director Charles Daniels to seize up to 80 percent of funds held in inmate accounts. “I wish there was a better answer than this was Marsy’s Law, because the language in Marsy’s Law doesn’t say that.”

“In my opinion, the process seemed to work pretty well,” Daniels said during the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Daniels noted the Board of Prison Commissioners later reduced the garnishment to 50 percent.  

“At no point did the director do what was asked of him by the governor — sit down with the families,” testified Ayanna Simmons, whose loved one is behind bars.   

NDOC is behind a bill that would realign priorities for distribution of money seized from inmate accounts, including wages and money deposits from friends and family.  

Cannizzaro said focusing on prioritizing the distribution of money seized from prisoners “glosses over some issues that brought this to the forefront.” 

“The real issue is how much is being taken from offenders accounts,” she said. 

Cannizzaro drew a distinction between offenders’ wages seized because “you’ve been ordered to pay restitution. That’s a little different from family members” who send money for food or postage.

“Where is it we are seeing this reasonable amount come from?” she asked NDOC officials.  

“There’s nothing about Marsy’s Law that would prohibit the Legislature from putting in a percentage, right?” 

Nevada law gives the NDOC director authority to impose “reasonable” deductions on inmate earnings and deposits from those on the outside.

Inmates’ relatives and loved ones, who haven’t been allowed to visit correction facilities in a year, testified the garnishments, which began September 1, were anything but reasonable and have compounded anxiety during the pandemic. It’s also changed prison dynamics, they said, with some inmates muscling others for money.  

“Regardless of how we word it, it’s our money that’s being garnished,” Denise Villanos testified in opposition to the measure. The $100 she’s able to send her husband in prison each month allows him to buy soap, laundry detergent, and other hygiene items, she says.   

“Regardless of who they are or what they did… they are still human beings,” she told lawmakers. “The person responsible for the crime should pay for it. You are, in fact, taking it from us.”

In a letter read into testimony, one inmate said because of the deductions, his mother “has to send $17.50 for me to buy a $2.50 deodorant.” 

The Nevada Association of Criminal Justice submitted an “unfriendly amendment” that would:

  • Cap wage deductions at 50 percent 
  • Cap family deposit deductions at 25 percent
  • Allow a deposit up to $300 once per quarter that is exempt from deductions
  • NDOC would provide statements to inmates so deductions are transparent.  

“Without statutory protections, families of the incarcerated are left in an extremely stressful situation where they are unsure if they will be able to provide for their loved ones on the inside,” Will Pregman of Battle Born Progress testified in favor of the amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the Progressive Alliance of Nevada also voiced support for the amendment.   

Sen. Dallas Harris asked the Department of Corrections why inmates are paying restitution to their individual victims, as well as into a victim compensation fund that provides assistance to victims who apply. She likened the practice to “double-dipping” and promised to do more research.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.