Since reaching a low point in 2014 when a prisoner was fatally shot by a guard, the Nevada Department of Corrections has been trying to change its culture and address its shortcomings.
That included a new director who’s been implementing broad changes throughout the prison system, and new initiatives approved by the Legislature that aim to prevent inmates from committing crimes again once they’re released.
Officials from the department checked in on Wednesday during a meeting with the Board of Prison Commissioners — a panel comprised of Gov. Brian Sandoval, Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske.
Here are highlights from their progress report:
Policy for transgender inmates
The board adopted a new policy for accommodating transgender inmates that was developed with input from the attorney general’s office, the ACLU and leaders in the transgender community from Reno and Las Vegas, although the ACLU says it’s not satisfied with the final outcome and thinks some portions of the policy run afoul of the Constitution and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
“While the ACLU of Nevada appreciates the Department of Corrections for hearing our concerns, its failure to act on them poses a serious problem. We are looking at all available options in order to ensure that the state’s handling of prisoners who are transgender is compliant with PREA and does not violate the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said in a statement.
Dzurenda said there’s a big push nationally for prisons to develop such rules, and said the state wanted to stay ahead of the game before the Department of Justice started holding Nevada to account for it.
Among the features of the policy:
- Staff aren’t supposed ask about an inmate’s sex or gender identity unless it’s needed to determine a housing placement, medical care or appropriate programming. That questioning is supposed to happen in a private and professional manner to avoid risking abuse or ridicule from other inmates.
- Inmates who are identified as gender non-conforming are placed in a single cell until a Non-Conforming Gender Review Committee determines an appropriate housing placement.
- Transgender inmates are allowed to choose the type of underwear and pajamas they want and can request bras.
- Transgender inmates can be provided with hormonal therapy if they were scheduled for a sex reassignment surgery, have been surgically castrated or have a valid prescription for such medication.
In a letter to Dzurenda dated May 23, 2017, the ACLU said it was encouraged that the agency was drafting a policy and inviting feedback but they still had concerns. The group’s lawyers argue that hormone replacement therapy shouldn’t be confined to inmates who were being treated before they were incarcerated, and should be allowed to start even after an inmate enters the system.
They also want the department to allow gender reassignment surgery. The ACLU said such surgery can be medically necessary for certain inmates and that denying that care could be a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
The policy uses outdated terminology, according to the group. The term “gender identity disorder” should be replaced with “gender dysphoria,” which is defined as distress stemming from incongruence between a person’s assigned sex and their gender identity.
Gender dysphoria is a condition that can be addressed with medically necessary treatment such as hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, the ACLU wrote, but not all transgender people have it and “being transgender is not a disorder and therefore does not require treatment.” That’s why they took issue with the department’s use of the term “transgender treatment.”
Raises helping with retention, but not recruiting
NDOC has a chronic shortage of corrections officers and trouble filling the posts at its remote facilities. Lawmakers approved a pay raise for those employees this past session that’s higher than that for the general pool of state employees.
Prisons director James Dzurenda said the morale had picked up as a result.
“It played a huge role in the morale of the staff,” he said. “They know that they’re being looked at, they know they’re being supported.”
But in terms of actually hiring new people?
“It’s not enough for recruiting,” he said. “There’s too much competition.”
Corrections officers with the state generally make less than officers doing the same thing for local police departments. They also have to contribute more to their retirement funds, and agencies such as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department — flush with cash from new taxes — are on hiring sprees.
Overdose prevention pilot program
Inmates who successfully complete a substance abuse program behind bars can participate in a pilot program meant to keep them from a relapse upon their release.
The agency has been working with the Irish pharmaceutical company Alkermes, which provided 100 doses of their medication Vivitrol to the state. The drug inhibits receptors in the brain, preventing a person from feeling a high from an opioid and therefore reducing cravings.
Taking the medicine is voluntary for prisoners who are about to be released, and the effects of the injection last for 30 days. Those taking it must also participate in counseling.
Nevada Chief Medical Officer John DiMuro said he didn’t have any hard data on the program’s effectiveness but hopes to present it at a subsequent prison commission meeting.
Tablets for prisoners
Nevada prisoners don’t yet have computer devices in their cells, but the state is laying the groundwork to make it happen.
Lawmakers approved a controversial bill this past session that will allow mobile devices for inmates to use for academic coursework. Critics dubbed it the “iPads for prisoners” bill and raised concerns that inmates would hack the devices and use them to contact their victims, while the department assured that devices would be secure.
David Tristan, NDOC’s deputy director for industrial programs, said there’s been an initial meeting that included school district superintendents, the College of Southern Nevada and IT professionals. The group laid identified a variety of issues they’ll need to address through the program — how to make the devices tamper-proof, whether they’ll be docked for charging and whether there needs to be a server to provide an internal intranet network within the facilities.
Tristan didn’t have an estimated date for the program’s launch.
This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. on Aug. 31, 2017 to add comment from the ACLU.