Indy Q&A: Sisolak on 2020, gun law changes and marijuana enforcement

Steve Sisolak seated during conversation

Gov. Steve Sisolak said he “underestimated” the passion of the public on firearms issues and is still studying how he might fulfill a campaign promise to ban assault rifles — an ill-defined category of weapons — as California lawmakers call for neighboring Nevada to ramp up its gun control.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Nevada Independent on Wednesday in Carson City, Sisolak also expressed skepticism about Medicare for all proposals championed by progressives because of their potential consequences to desirable union health plans. He also confirmed that he would not endorse a presidential candidate before the state’s February caucus.

Sisolak, who defeated Republican Adam Laxalt in the 2018 election to become Nevada’s first Democratic governor in two decades, was hesitant to say much about his recent attempts to “root out potential corruption” in the marijuana industry. He didn’t say whether a task force he has convened has made any arrests, citing ongoing investigations, but says he wants as much information as possible to be public as soon as practicable.

He also discussed the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders, a proposed ballot measure to raise money for education and his new appointee to lead the state’s prison system.

Highlights of the 20-minute interview are below.

Firearms

In light of a request from several California lawmakers for Nevada to beef up its gun laws in the wake of a mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival (the firearms were purchased in Nevada), Sisolak said he had a “lengthy discussion” with California Gov. Gavin Newsom on the issue but said he had underestimated how strongly people in the state’s rural counties felt about firearms.

“Candidly, I think I underestimated the amount of emotion that was involved with some of the rural communities as it comes to firearms,” he said. “We're dealing with the sheriff of Humboldt County, we're dealing with sheriffs that are just saying we're not going to enforce the (background checks) law. I mean, that's problematic. I didn't think it would be that emotionally charged or that it's a litmus test issue for folks that don't understand, or don't want to take the time to understand, when we're trying to explain to them.”

Although he ran a memorable campaign ad in 2018 promising to “ban assault rifles, bump stocks, silencers” if elected governor, he again demurred on whether he would push for an assault weapon ban in the 2021 legislative session, saying that policies to ban a specific type or feature of a firearm had to be carefully construed in order to avoid loopholes and other workarounds.

“I don't have enough of an intimate knowledge about exactly what an assault rifle is,” he said. “You know, I've met with folks, I'm trying to become more educated. It's not the look of a weapon that makes an assault rifle. Is it the velocity? Is it the expanded capacity to rapid-fire? I mean, those are the kinds of things. Once you ban one thing, you ban product A, they come up with product B. That's going to be the same thing that product A did. All you're doing is making more money for gun manufacturers.”

2020 election & Medicare for all

Sisolak — who met with at least five Democratic presidential candidates during the 2019 legislative session — said he has continued to meet with contenders but has no plans to endorse a challenger to President Donald Trump prior to the state’s February presidential caucus.

“I told them the important thing is really not my endorsement,” he said. “It's the Culinary worker in the back of the house at the Mirage, or the guy working on the expansion of the convention center. Those are the endorsements that are going to really matter, the working men and women and you know, I don't think my endorsement is as important as theirs, quite frankly.”

The governor also took a guarded position on the progressive goal of transitioning the country to a single-payer, “Medicare for all” health care system, a policy championed by presidential candidates including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Sisolak said he would have an easier time supporting a Medicare expansion or making it easier to qualify for the social program, but said a wholesale change to the health care system was rife with “logistical problems,” including what would happen to insurance plans negotiated by labor unions.

“When you get into taking away the health care that you've negotiated over a period of time, that's problematic,” he said. “I mean, people have their doctors, they have their plans, they don't want to change those. So I don't know the logistics of how that would work.”

Marijuana

Sisolak said he inherited a marijuana regulatory system with problems and is now tasked with fixing it, but did not divulge details about what punishments — if any — have been meted out to licensees since he called for more scrutiny to the cannabis sector.

“There wasn't an adequate infrastructure put in place in the rush to get the tax revenue and now we're having to pick up the pieces,” he said.

He pointed to recent troubles with marijuana testing labs that have provided inaccurate measurements of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

“You've seen us take some action when it comes down to the testing labs,” he said, “and selling a product that's got a high mold or heavy metal content to somebody with a compromised immune system is really problematic for me.”

But information about disciplinary action against marijuana licensees has been hard to come by. The state has declined to even confirm whether a Sparks marijuana testing lab has been suspended, even though a sign posted on the business’s door says so.

The state has also declined to provide information about disciplinary action, including which cases are pending, even though marijuana businesses said at the time a marijuana transparency bill passed in May that it would shed light on disciplinary proceedings. Sisolak deferred to Tyler Klimas, leader of the forthcoming Cannabis Control Board, on how much would be revealed.

Licensees “have due process and I fully understand that and I want them to have their due process,” he said. “At the same time, it’s my job to protect the public in an industry that's in its infancy.”

He also declined to say whether there have been any arrests or imminent arrests from an emergency task force he set up to “root out potential corruption” in the industry, saying he can’t divulge information about ongoing investigations.

But he said his goal is transparency, pointing to the bill he signed this spring that unveiled names of marijuana applicants and owners that had previously been shrouded in secrecy.

“I want to do everything I can to make it public when we can make it public. The transparency is extremely important to me. I don't believe in government in the shadows and the anonymous source kind of stuff,” he said. 

Environment

Speculation is growing that in the face of Sisolak’s recent executive order directing the state to reduce carbon emissions as part of an effort to combat climate change, Nevada may be next in line to adopt higher emissions standards for passenger vehicles.

The state has already intervened in a lawsuit brought by California over the state’s right to set higher emission standards than the federal government, and the state agency heads tasked with implementing the executive order have identified emissions standards as one major policy step to reduce carbon emissions. 

Sisolak, who in March signed Nevada onto a multi-state alliance following the tenets and carbon reduction goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, said “nothing’s off the table” in terms of policies that would reduce carbon emissions — including emission standards.

“We need to take action and move forward,” he said. “It's not happening in Washington D.C. … So it falls to the governors in individual states, and I think we need to send a strong, clear message it's a priority for us on every level. Carbon emissions (are) a big part of it. Clearly that's going to be most impactful in terms of moving the needle.”

Impeachment

Sisolak deferred to Congress when asked whether he supports the ongoing effort to impeach President Donald Trump over accusations that he withheld foreign aid to Ukraine in an effort to extract political favors.

“I've got so many issues that are on my plate right now. I'm dealing with SNAP benefits and marijuana labs and that sort of thing,” Sisolak said. “We've got people in Congress and in the Senate that are ultimately going to make that choice ... that's going to be their decision and I'll let you leave it up to them.”

Taxes for education

Asked about a proposal from the Clark County Education Association to pass a tax in a 2022 statewide vote to raise $1 billion for education, Sisolak said he hasn’t spoken with union leader John Vellardita about the plan and knows only what he’s seen in the press.

“I don't know what they're proposing to raise, so I can't even comment on that,” he said. 

But he noted that the measure appears to be focused only on education and not the many other areas of the state budget.

“There are other areas that all factor into there that also needed to be addressed,” he said. “And I'm not even hearing that being discussed.”

He also had qualms about passing major policy through ballot measure, a process that doesn’t allow for the tweaks that bills get through the legislative process and can lead to unintended consequences.

“I don't think that that's the best way to pass taxes ... That's just me,” he said. “I can [tell] you what I do support is teachers.”

Asked if he was prepared to promise, as he did last budget cycle, a budget that included no new taxes, Sisolak was noncommittal aside from saying the work his staff has been doing on the budget has been “incredible.”

“Well, you're getting way ahead,” he said. “We're still waiting to see how things work out.”

Steve Wynn

Nevada gaming regulators are attempting to strip former casino mogul Steve Wynn of the “suitability findings” that would allow him to participate in the gambling sector, as well as fine him based on reports that he committed sexual misconduct against employees. Wynn is fighting back vigorously, arguing that he stepped down from his casino company and gaming regulators no longer have the jurisdiction to sanction him.

Sisolak said he’d let Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan make that decision.

“I think that Sandra Douglass Morgan was one of the proudest appointments that I've made. She's absolutely incredible as a chair of the Gaming Control Board,” Sisolak said. “She's a lawyer. I'm not. She knows the laws better than I do, and I will stand with whatever decision she decides to move forward with.”

He said the regulators are not just out to punish Wynn personally, after Wynn Resorts was also fined for not doing enough to stop the misconduct.

“My opinion is Sandra Douglass Morgan doesn't have a mean-spirited bone in her body,” he said. “She's doing what she feels is best for the state of Nevada and the interests of the gaming industry as we move forward. And if she feels it's in the best interest to hold an individual accountable, I'll support her on that.”

He said the decision matters because gaming is one of the most important industries in the state.

“We need to protect the credibility of that industry and that's one of her main jobs and I'm going to support her on that one,” he said.

Raiders training camp

In spite of interviews with Raiders owner Mark Davis, who stated that the football team will continue to hold its annual training camp in Napa after moving to Las Vegas, Sisolak said he was confident that the team would eventually move its facilities east to Nevada.

“They're not going to stay in Napa,” he said. “I don't believe they'll stay in Napa. I've had numerous discussions with both (Mark Davis) and (Raiders executive) Mark Badain on this issue.”

Sisolak was a major booster of efforts to lure the Raiders to Las Vegas — including $750 million in hotel room taxes directed to a stadium for the team — and joined team executives mid-campaign to view potential future training camp sites in Reno in 2018. He said the potential sites for the team, which included the University of Nevada, Reno and a local high school, were not “conducive” for an NFL team, and that the facilities needed for the team couldn’t be conjured up overnight.

“You know, there were a lot of requirements that they needed in terms of hotel rooms, in terms of nutritional issues, kitchens and weight rooms and training rooms and breakout rooms,” he said. “And it was quite a lengthy list of requirements that you had for a training camp, and to make all those work. I don't think you can do it in a couple months.”

Still, Sisolak said he spoke with Badain about the issue as recently as two weeks ago, and said they would be “restarting those discussions” once the team completes the move to Las Vegas.

Corrections

Sisolak said he was “impressed” by Charles Daniels, a longtime corrections official who he recently appointed to head up the Nevada Department of Corrections. He also said the press “should be ecstatic about it because he's very big on transparency and on openness.”

“He's a man of a character and there was the issue he had where he would not fudge statistics. I mean, he called it like he saw it. He wants the truth,” Sisolak said “You're going to see him tell it like it is. There's going to be no hedging and no manipulating, if it were, of numbers. And I think it's something that's desperately needed to move our correctional facilities forward.” 

Sisolak said he probably interviewed more people for the prisons director than for any other position. One plus for Daniels was that has lived in Henderson, making for an easier transition from his current job with the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The governor said Daniels’ ideology was a bit different than that of former director James Dzurenda, who earned praise for working to reduce the use of solitary confinement and eliminate the use of shotguns in prison.

“I think you're going to see some innovative, exciting things that we hadn't seen previously in corrections and I think the folks who work in there are going to like him,” Sisolak said. “He wants people to know that the public has to buy in to this in order to make it work and he's going to not be hiding.”

Longtime prisons professional Charles Daniels tapped to lead Nevada Department of Corrections

Ely State Prison

The Nevada Department of Corrections has a new director — Charles Daniels, who has more than three decades of experience as a correctional officer and warden and most recently held a top job in the Alabama prison system.

Charles Daniels
NDOC Director Charles Daniels.

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Monday that he had appointed Daniels to the post, which had been filled on an interim basis by Harold Wickham after the resignation of James Dzurenda this summer. Dzurenda left after three years to do consulting, including for North Las Vegas, which plans to reopen a mothballed jail.

“Charles brings more than three decades of knowledge, management experience, and perspective that will bring needed structure, accountability, and reform to the Nevada Department of Corrections,” Sisolak said in a statement. “I have full confidence in Charles’ abilities, and I look forward to working with him to improve our state prison system.”

Daniels served in the Air Force before joining the Federal Bureau of Prisons as a correctional officer in California in 1988. He has been a warden in Beaumont, Texas and Terre Haute, Indiana, and also held correctional roles in Illinois, Colorado and Oregon.

In 2008, he became the senior deputy assistant to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prison’s Industries, Education, and Vocational Training Division.

More recently, he held a senior role at the New York City Department of Corrections, and earlier this year he was named deputy commissioner of operations for the Alabama Department of Corrections — a prison system recognized by the Department of Justice as one of the worst in the country for homicide, suicide and rape. 

Daniels has a degree in criminal justice. His appointment comes as the department seeks to implement reforms passed by the Legislature in 2019 that aim to curb growth in the prison population and after Dzurenda implemented policies removing shotguns from prisons and trying to reduce the use of solitary confinement.

Prison staff are also in the process of unionizing after legislation this year authorizing the practice. Leaders of the union board said they looked forward to working with Daniels to address concerns in their workplace.

"AFSCME correctional members look forward to working with Mr. Daniels to improve working conditions and staff morale at NDOC facilities across Nevada," said Matthew Gregory, a correctional officer who is a board member of the AFSCME Local 4041 Corrections North Chapter. "As front-line workers at these facilities, we face many issues with safety and operational procedures, and we are ready to work with the new director to make much needed changes." 

Updated at 6:45 p.m. on 12/3/19 to add comment from correctional officer union.

Audit: Inmates granted parole remain behind bars for longer over housing issues

The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada

Every week, dozens of inmates eligible for parole nonetheless remain incarcerated months longer than they should be, according to a recent audit of mental health services in the state’s prison system that identified potential ways to reduce recidivism and save taxpayers more than $4 million a year.

Those findings and other potential improvements on mental health services in the state prison system were released publicly on Thursday as part of an audit report presented to the Executive Branch Audit Committee (composed of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and controller).

The audit, which began in February 2019, found that the state could save an estimated $1.6 million annually by better working with other state agencies and “community partners” to plan for inmate release and supervision once they leave prison.

One of the primary issues raised by the audit dealt with the “handoff” of inmates from the prison department to the Division of Parole and Probation — a separate entity — and communication issues that routinely leave prisoners behind bars after they’ve been granted parole.

Ninety days prior to an inmate being released, the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) creates what’s called a “Primary Release Plan,” where a state-employed social worker meets with an inmate to set up a plan that includes enrolling in social services such as Medicaid, welfare benefits or food stamps, as well as appointments with mental health services if appropriate. The release plan is vetted by employees of the state’s Division of Parole and Probation and can be rejected if the housing plan for the soon-to-be-released inmate is not viable.

But the audit found that NDOC “does not measure the effectiveness” of the release plans, and that a significant number of inmates remain incarcerated, despite being granted parole, because of housing issues with their release plans. Using weekly data from a three month-span in 2019, auditors discovered that an average of 65 release plans for inmates were routinely deemed nonviable by the parole division, keeping those inmates incarcerated until their situation could be resolved. In total, those delays were estimated to cost the state $1.6 million a year.  

Members of the executive audit committee said they were sympathetic to prison officials, given the difficulties of finding adequate housing for formerly incarcerated people, but still expressed concerns that people were remaining behind bars for longer than they should.

“I have grave concern about people who should be released who are not being released because of a nonviable plan,” Attorney General Aaron Ford said during the meeting. “On a going-forward basis, the only reason why that should be the case should be things that are external to your ability to address, for example like housing.”

Interim corrections Director Harold Wickham said that the audit underscored some of the work toward better data management and relations with other state agencies that the department implemented under former Director James Dzurenda, but acknowledged that the department would work to improve its processes.

“We have to do a better job, and we’re continually working to do that, to get a better relationship with these agencies so there can be a smoother handoff with (the parole division) and other agencies,” he said. “And so we can have the data stream continue to flow with a continuum of care, rather than just pass this person off to the next person and then we forget about it, or that information stops at one level and doesn’t get to the next.”

Additionally, auditors found that an estimated 31 percent of inmates released between January 2018 and August 2019 received no post-release supervision or case management. Of those individuals, an estimated 7 percent were inmates with documented mental health issues.

Auditors suggested that the corrections department partner with state mental health agencies to provide treatment and “could help bridge the gap from incarceration to integration into the community.”

Although corrections is developing a plan to give released inmates a package of information that encompasses what they participated in during their incarceration (from mental health restrictions, programming, jobs, medications and treatments), auditors wrote that there was “little communication” between the agency and other organizations likely to deal with inmates after release.

“Better coordination between agencies and community partners would help ensure released inmates are getting the resources to successfully reintegrate into communities and reduce recidivism,” auditors wrote in the report.

The audit also raised issues with an overall lack of data collection and analysis to assess the outcomes of programs for mentally ill people; although the department implemented an “evidence-based program” for mentally ill inmates in 2017, it never established goals or a formal data analysis to see if the programs are reducing recidivism (the rate of former inmates returning to prison). 

“Performance measurement data is not collected or used by NDOC to measure the effectiveness of the mental health programs, including evidence based programs,” the audit states. “As a result, NDOC cannot determine or measure the success of its mental health programs and the effectiveness of state funding to support inmates with mental health diagnoses.”

Auditors wrote that although the evidence-based programs are functioning as designed, the lack of measurements and data collection meant there was no way to determine if the prison system was achieving its desired goals. The report estimated that even a 5 percent decrease in recidivism rates for mentally ill inmates could save the state up to $2.7 million annually.

The report states that NDOC staff have “limited resources” to track performative goals, but notes that the agency was given funding in the 2019 Legislature for a statistician position, which could help with assessing and tracking mental health service data.

In a response letter, the Department of Corrections said it agreed with all recommendations in the audit, and would aim to have them in place by July 2022, in part because the agency may need to request additional funds to fulfill the recommendations.

In spite of assault by inmate, former Nevada prison doctor advocates for more compassion in prison

Dr. Karen Gedney

On Oct. 13, 1989, Dr. Karen Gedney was taken hostage while working in the medical center at the Nevada State Prison by Kenneth “Moth” James Meller, who wanted to end his life in a “suicide by cop.” During the hostage situation, Meller sexually assaulted Gedney, kept her captive for almost 10 hours, and then was killed when officers stormed the room.

On the following Monday, Gedney was back at the prison and continued her work.

“It never occurred to me to quit,” said Gedney. “And then I also really became aware of the abuses of power in a prison, and I’ve always wanted to protect people from abuses of power and that can be inmates on inmates, officers, and administration on inmates abusing their power, and all that you need there is a couple of bad apples and you can get an ugly sort of situation.”

Now retired, Gedney, formerly the senior physician at the now-closed Nevada State Prison in Carson City, wrote a book about her experiences, "30 Years Behind Bars." She gives presentations, is the medical director at the Ridge House recovery center and mentors children. At a distinguished speaker event at Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) late last month, Gedney said her biggest goal is for former prisoners to be less of a risk when they are back in society.

“I saw the majority of leadership where they were predominantly interested in security and didn’t want to take any risk and did not look at their position as returning that citizen, that individual back into society less of a risk,” Gedney said during an interview on the IndyMatters podcast. “They were concerned with, ‘Let’s make sure they don’t kill each other on the inside, or staff, and when they leave, it’s someone else’s problem.’”

Gedney’s approach comes in spite of her traumatic hostage situation with Meller.

When she came back to work, she said she noticed something odd about how people were dealing with the incident that had happened so recently — they didn’t acknowledge it. What she said was even more surprising than a hostage situation being ignored, though, was that the other inmates were the first to inquire about her well-being and show genuine compassion.

Meller had been in prison since 1975 when he was convicted of shooting and killing trooper Gary Gifford, the first Nevada Highway Patrol officer killed on the job. Meller was a Vietnam War veteran and had built a working relationship with Gedney at the prison. 

“So when he took me, he knew he would get himself killed,” said Gedney. “He forced their hand to kill him — and he took me hostage October, Friday the 13th, wanting to be killed at midnight, which was the 14th year anniversary of the death of the policeman.”

Programs at the prison that had a real rehabilitative effect focused on helping prisoners adapt to different situations — a skill vital for a successful post-prison life. During her presentation at TMCC, Gedney said poetry and creative writing, which was offered to provide an outlet for the inmates, gave prisoners a voice and made them feel like there were humans and not just animals in cages.

Other programs, such as “puppies on parole,” where inmates take care of rescue dogs, and the “mustang program,” where prisoners train wild horses, have given inmates the chance to take care of one another while also receiving companionship that has a positive influence on them and their behavior. 

Asked what would be the best way to get prisoners ready for the outside world, Gedney responded by saying that once prisoners enter the prison, there should already be a plan in place for their departure. Traditionally, when inmates have completed their sentences, they are sent on their way, often without any contacts or even a legal form of identification, and are expected to stay out of trouble.

Nevada’s recidivism rate — the percentage of people released from prison who return within three years —  is more than 30 percent. 

New programs have been introduced to better facilitate the transition between prison and public life, such as Northern Nevada Transitional Housing and the Day Reporting Center, which helps people on parole and probation by providing a higher level of support, instead of sending a person back to prison, for instance, after a technical violation of their parole terms. 

The transitional housing program keeps inmates in custody while enabling them to work during the day, which allows them to learn how to step back into society. This program is coupled with TMCC’s re-entry program, where former prisoners are given the opportunity to learn new skills and find work once they leave prison.

The Legislature has been working on issues related to criminal justice and reducing the prison population. During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed AB236, AB267, and AB326 with the goal of stemming prison costs, compensating those who were wrongfully convicted and expanding eligibility for specialty courts, such as the Veterans Court in Reno, which aims to offer treatment and high levels of accountability instead of sending someone to prison.

Gedney has worked extensively with preventative programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, and has been a mentor for five children. She believes one-on-one interactions and intervention can keep kids out of prison.

“If you are a minority and one of your parents is in prison, your chance of ending up in prison is 70 percent,” said Gedney at the speaking event Oct. 24. “If you have a strong adult figure, that number goes down to 10 percent.” 

Whether Nevada’s prisons head in the direction Gedney hopes will depend in part on who takes over the Nevada Department of Corrections after the resignation of James Dzurenda earlier this year. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office told The Nevada Independent and that the search process was underway. 

“Since former Director Dzurenda's departure, the Governor's Office has been aggressively searching for the right person to appoint as the next permanent NDOC Director,” a Sisolak spokesman said in an email. “The Governor feels the urgency to fill that role as soon as possible, but also wants to ensure that his appointee is the right person to lead the agency. He is hopeful that he'll be able to make an announcement in the near future.” 

Sisolak’s office expects to convene the Board of Prison Commissioners soon. The board, which generally meets quarterly, has not had a meeting since March. 

When asked about what qualifications should be taken into account in choosing the next prison director, Gedney said the state needs someone who is thinking strategically.

“I have lived through 10 different prison directors,” she said, “and the most effective prison director for Nevada will be someone who is oriented to work with the other agencies in a strategic plan that will reduce these men from coming back to prison, and that means assessing what their needs are and making sure that happens on the inside and hook them to the outside.”

Report: Nevada continues to rely heavily on isolating inmates, including some with serious mental illness

The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada

Nevada prison officials made headlines in 2017 when they told lawmakers that some inmates with serious mental illness had been in solitary confinement for years — potentially violating the Constitution — and promised the agency was moving away from the practice.

But a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice indicates the problem has not been fully resolved: The group found that more than 12 percent of Nevada prison inmates are in “segregation” — a number that researchers say is on the high end relative to other states — and some in isolation have serious mental illness. They also found that while the number of people explicitly sent to segregation as punishment went down, there was an increase in the number of people sent to segregation for murky and ill-documented “administrative” reasons.

“I think that the Vera report just solidifies and validates everything we say has been occurring with solitary confinement practices in the Nevada Department of Corrections,” said Holly Welborn, policy director at the ACLU of Nevada, which has pushed bills to limit the practice and published a report in 2017 with firsthand accounts of people who spent time in segregation. “It’s a process that’s overused.”

There’s no standard definition of “segregation” or “restrictive housing,” but it generally refers to a situation in which a person is removed from a prison’s general population and confined to a cell — either alone or with a cellmate — for 22 to 24 hours a day with few if any formal activities. 

“Often the argument for solitary is for safety, right? It's to keep the prison safer, to keep society safer,” said Elena Vanko, one of the Vera Institute researchers who worked on the Nevada report. “But there really isn't the evidence to support that solitary ... changes people's behavior or deters misbehavior.”

Through a document review, site visits and focus groups with staff and inmates, Vera found that out-of-cell time varies widely in Nevada institutions. Although policies call for activities in the units, the inmates there do not have jobs, small-group recreation or other social activities — confinement that some inmates in the ACLU’s 2017 report said changed their personalities and made them feel “like we are lost to the world.”

“People’s brains are literally deteriorating. Being caged in the hole makes people angry, violent, and bitter,” wrote one inmate, “Alex.” “There is nothing positive about this, all it does is create monsters.”

But the Vera report also reaffirmed Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) administrators, under the direction of recently departed Director James Dzurenda, were committed to making progress on the practice. Researchers noted that NDOC had reduced the maximum length of disciplinary segregation sanctions to 60 days for most offenses, down from two years or more, and moved many seriously mentally ill inmates out of solitary and into a mental health unit.

Vera is urging even more changes, suggesting that maximum terms of segregation be reduced to 30 days, and even then only in response to the most serious and violent offenses. The new leader of the agency, NDOC Acting Director Harold Wickham, said in a statement that the report should be helpful for implementing changes.

“Vera Institute has demonstrated in other states like Washington and Louisiana that it’s possible to improve prison safety and public safety by significantly reducing the numbers of people in isolation,” Wickham said. “The results of this study will provide Nevada’s political and prison leadership alternatives to large-scale reliance on segregation and isolation.”

Correctional officers on the ground say they want to be involved in the conversation.

“As front-line workers, we hope NDOC will include correctional officers and non-custody staff in discussions about any and all departmental policy changes,” George Davis, a senior correctional officer and president of the AFSCME Local 4041 Great Basin Chapter, said in a statement.

Here are some takeaways from the report, which was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

A cell that holds two inmates as seen Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 at the Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Isolating conditions in segregation

Part of Vera’s study involved site visits to five Nevada prisons and a focus group for people who had experienced segregation.

“We heard from a lot of people that it was just very isolating, not a lot to do ... very hard on the psyche,” Vanko said. “There's a lot of research showing that mental illness can develop when someone spends a lot of time in segregation — just no interactions. The few interactions that there may be is just with a corrections officer who's bringing your tray.” 

The Vera Institute argued for better conditions within segregation units as a way to prepare inmates to leave the restrictive housing unit and the prison itself. Prisons should focus on minimizing isolation, boredom and sensory deprivation, as well as providing positive socialization to ensure a healthy body and mind, report authors said.

“There will always be some people who may need to be separated from the general population of a prison or jail for safety reasons,” Vanko said. “But what Vera believes is that that separated environment doesn't have to look like solitary confinement. It doesn't have to mean a person's in their cell 23 hours a day and for the one hour they're out they’re put in restraints and they only go to a small yard … it should still provide programming. If the person has mental health needs, they should get an adequate mental health treatment, things like that.”

Researchers called for ensuring conditions in segregation match the general population’s as much as possible, including having more out-of-cell recreation, ensuring regular access to phone calls and visitors, and providing “meaningful programming and treatment.”

That’s not always happening now. Phone or visitation privileges were revoked on about 1,700 occasions in the first three quarters of 2017, even though one prison policy prohibits such a sanction unless an inmate committed an offense related to visitors.

“A great deal of research demonstrates the importance of communication and maintaining family engagement for both incarcerated people and their loved ones,” the report said. “Frequent and meaningful family visits can lead to better outcomes for incarcerated people, including fewer infractions while incarcerated and a lower risk for recidivism.” 

Although time out of a cell is a goal, staff interviewed as part of a focus group noted that many inmates in segregation turn down even the few opportunities to leave their cell. 

“This was confirmed by many incarcerated people, who cited reasons such as recreation taking place in small individual enclosures where there is not anything to do, and sometimes being offered recreation at inconvenient times (like at night),” researchers said.

Outdoor recreation opportunities for people in segregation should be held at reasonable times of the day and in places suitable for exercise, rather than small recreational enclosures currently being used, researchers said. To address bad weather, prisons should offer recreation time in a dayroom or in a special exercise cell.

Aside from the recreational opportunities, staff should seek out more opportunities for inmates to be productive when they are in their cells, such as increasing access to reading materials and activities through TV, MP3 players or tablets, researchers said. They also suggested consulting with incarcerated people, who might have their own ideas for activities within cells.

Inmates in the yard at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City on May 19, 2017. Photo by David Calvert

People in segregation for longer than they should be

Although the Vera Institute found that NDOC was reducing its use of “disciplinary segregation” — when someone is isolated from other inmates as punishment for bad behavior — there was a commensurate increase in “administrative segregation,” a category of isolation used for a variety of reasons including that the person is under investigation or considered a danger to others. 

The number of people ordered to disciplinary segregation in Nevada prisons fell from a high of 876 in the fourth quarter of 2017 to 554 in the third quarter of 2017, and the average length of the term in isolation fell from nearly six months in 2016 to just over two months in 2017. 

Meanwhile, the number of people in administrative segregation jumped from 822 to 966 from early to mid-2017.In all, there are nearly 14,000 inmates in the Nevada prisons and correctional camps.

The trend raises questions about whether staff send people into administrative segregation as an informal punishment.

“It is important to determine whether the increase in [administrative segregation] use may be an unintended consequence of the disciplinary reforms and subsequent decreased use of [disciplinary segregation] —whether, for example, some staff may unofficially be using AS in place of DS,” the report said.

Unlike the disciplinary version, administrative segregation offers no clear pathway out and there’s no limit on how long someone can be there. Staff at some prisons told Vera researchers that they knew of people who had been in administrative segregation for years.

The report also identified another shortcoming: that many people are placed in segregation that  is intended to precede a disciplinary hearing, but that hearing never happens or it takes a long time — 45 days or more — to wrap up.

On the back end, a shortage of beds in the general population can mean people who no longer need to be in segregation wait in segregation units for weeks or months before transferring out. 

“This increases NDOC’s segregation population and means numerous people are in restrictive housing conditions even though the department has determined that there is no reason for them to be there,” the report said.

Vera found that In the third quarter of 2017, the average woman who was leaving segregation had been there for 73 days, while the average man had been in segregation for between 18 to 46 days, depending on the institution.

Researchers recommended more frequent review of segregation placements and checkups on whether people should remain there or should be allowed to return to the general population.

People abruptly moved from segregation into the community

Vera researchers faulted the state for a process that abruptly returns inmates from segregation into the outside world. In the third quarter of 2017, more than 15 percent of people released from prison were either released directly from segregation or within 30 days of being there.

“This practice means that people are moved quickly from an extremely restrictive and isolating environment to a community environment that requires autonomy and complex social interactions, which adds difficulty to the already challenging process of reentering the community,” the report said.  

They said it’s “critical” to put safeguards in place that prevent such abrupt releases.

People with mental health issues remain in segregation

Although NDOC’s policy says people with serious mental illness should not be assigned to disciplinary segregation, incomplete records and a lack of detail about why people are in administrative segregation makes it difficult to tell whether staff are adhering to the policy.

The report found that a full 41 percent of people in segregation had some sort of mental health flag in their files, and a portion of those were classified as severely mentally ill.

Meanwhile, correctional officers — including those who work in mental health units — do not receive training in mental health beyond the standard pre-service training all officers receive, the report said.

Vera recommends mental health care training be offered to all officers.The need is particularly acute at the state’s sole women-only prison, Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center, where nearly half of the inmates are said to have a mental health issue, and about 15 percent have a serious one.

“Staff and incarcerated people across multiple facilities also described a great need for mental health staff, mental health training for custody staff, and more available and meaningful mental health treatment and programming,” researchers said. 

Carson Adult High School graduation at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A better way?

Vera recommends segregation should only be used as a last resort to protect the safety of staff and other inmates, and that people in isolation should be held in the least restrictive environment for the shortest time possible.

Lower-level offenses, such as the very common offense of having contraband, refusing to participate in programming or trading and bartering, should never lead to segregation if they are non-violent, researchers said. Offenses like self-mutilation should not lead to discipline, but should lead to medical and mental health care.

Correctional officers should be trained to seek out alternative punishments, including verbal warnings and revocation of certain privileges, researchers said. Vera recommends training on crisis intervention, “motivational interviewing” and other practices that can de-escalate tense situations.

It can be a culture change for staff and take patience to try new techniques instead of relying on segregation to maintain order, Vanko said. But the changes can improve their working conditions.

“A lot of times once staff start to see that one, the sky's not falling, and two, maybe things are actually getting better — a lot of times then they do buy in and then talk to their coworkers and tell them about the great thing that's happening on their unit,” she said. “People aren't shouting and banging on the doors all the time. It's making their day less stressful, making their job less stressful.”

Welborn said she believes inexperience and inadequate training drives an overreliance on segregation in Nevada prisons as a tool to maintain order.

“They want to get people in and hired because they have a recruitment and retention problem,” she said. “They train people then they leave for higher paying county jobs. They rush those trainings.”

She also said understaffing contributes to the problem — but the solution is not just more staff, but reforms that could reduce the prison population overall.

The governor’s office said the state had made “tremendous strides” in reforming the state’s prison system since the end of the legislative session. Among other things, it pointed out that the state had applied for a Department of Justice criminal justice reform implementation grant to fund diversion programs, specialty courts and mental health treatment programs to redirect people destined for prison.

“The Office has been engaged in implementing [criminal justice reform bill] AB 236 by reconstituting the Nevada Sentencing Commission and creating the executive branch Department of Indigent Defense Services and the new Indigent Defense Board,” Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office said in a statement. “The Governor looks forward to continue building on this progress over the course of his first term.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU is continuing to push for both new changes and enforcement of existing law limiting solitary confinement — she said her organization has struggled to get public records that would show whether a 2017 law is being enforced. Their ultimate goal is the “Mandela rule,” in which solitary confinement is used no more than 15 days at a time.

They’ll be looking to someone who can carry on the mantle of Dzurenda, whose reformer record in New York and Connecticut gave them hope, Welborn said. Dzurenda departed last month and is set to work as a consultant helping North Las Vegas reopen its mothballed jail.

“We were disappointed with many decisions made under his leadership, such as the way the DOC handled execution protocol transparency and its failure to provide full access to medications for transgender inmates,” Welborn wrote. “But he valued human dignity and meaningfully advanced policies the ACLU of Nevada has been fighting to achieve, including solitary confinement reform. The Board of Prison Commissioners needs to appoint a Director who also respects human rights.”

Officials from the governor’s office said they are actively searching for a replacement.

“The ideal candidate will further the Governor’s vision of treatment, diversion, and personalized justice, suited to ensure that Nevada is safe and that those who commit crimes are treated effectively and rehabilitated appropriately, where possible,” said Sisolak spokesman Ryan McInerney.

Getting snack-filled care packages to inmates presents unique hurdles to prisons

Guards walk inside High Desert State Prison as seen on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

Getting a high volume of packages to buyers safely and efficiently isn’t just a problem for Amazon to solve — it’s one that’s bedeviled the Nevada Department of Corrections.

The Board of Examiners — which includes the governor — voted Tuesday to authorize 18 staffers from the Department of Corrections to contract with an outside company for the rest of the year to help deliver care packages to their rightful incarcerated owners. The state will eventually bring on more employees at the prison store, eliminating the need for officers to moonlight as delivery personnel within prison walls.

Nevada’s system of getting packages to prisoners hasn’t always worked smoothly, corrections officials told lawmakers this spring. Prisons had been using a system where inmates walked up to a retail store window and picked up items from one of two staffers on duty.

But that involved inmates leaving their housing units and standing in line for long periods of time, often in the elements, and alongside rivals who wanted to steal their new stuff.

“We discontinued it because of the number of incidents we had on the yard,” then-NDOC Director James Dzurenda testified in April. “Knowledge of certain inmates receiving commissary may create issues. With inmates that feel they had to pay another inmate for a debt unauthorized by NDOC — they do illegal activities that we try to stop.”

So prison officials reverted to a system like Amazon’s — direct-to-door delivery. Officers and  non-officer staff employees contract with Access SecurePak, a company whose website allows loved ones to order inmates snacks ranging from Twizzlers and Twinkies to a Taco Bell-branded double-decker taco meal.

Inmates are limited to one food package and one clothing package each quarter because accumulating too much personal property can create a security risk or even a fire hazard, staff said. Access SecurePak drops off the goods outside the prison, and contracted officers who stay after their regular shift is over deliver the packages within the housing unit for $5 apiece.

“It has proven to be a safer and more secure delivery process,” Dzurenda said. 

In coming months, new retail shopkeepers whose positions were approved by the Legislature will take over the care package deliveries. But if history is a guide, filling those positions could be a challenge — NDOC said it struggles to recruit and retain staff to work at inmate stores because the retail job market is competitive, especially at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, north of Las Vegas.

“If individuals can find a job for comparable pay in town, they are less inclined to accept a job with more mileage and security risks,” said Venus Fajota, chief of purchasing and inmate services, told lawmakers.

The whole system is not immune to criticism, especially because the inmate commissary has a 64 percent profit margin on goods sold, according to documents provided to lawmakers. But NDOC officials said the margins on supplies sold within prison will go back to the Inmate Welfare Account, which provides services that help indigent inmates with costs such as postage and medical co-pays.

The fund also provides television, security during visitation, programming and reintegration services. 

“The fund allows for reasonable accommodations of the inmates while enhancing their programming as they prepare to re-enter society,” prison spokesman Scott Kelley said in a statement. “NDOC provides for the fundamental needs of the inmates while discretionary commissary purchases provides for many of the enhanced services for the inmates.” 

NDOC officials said they eventually plan to use the Inmate Welfare Account to pay for computing devices for inmates that would simplify their education, correspondence, banking and other tasks. That, however, is on hold because the Legislature did not approve funding to install security equipment and software to ensure the devices are used properly, the agency said.

Dzurenda wrapping up term as prisons director, in talks with North Las Vegas for jail consulting work

A guard tower at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City

Nevada Department of Corrections Director James Dzurenda is wrapping up his term at the head of state prisons on Friday, but has plans to do consulting work with the City of North Las Vegas as it tries to reopen its mothballed jail.

The North Las Vegas City Council on Tuesday voted, as part of its consent agenda, to allow City Manager Ryann Juden to develop a contract with Dzurenda’s newly formed consulting company to the tune of $150,000. 

As it faced financial troubles in 2012, North Las Vegas began sending inmates to be housed at the City of Las Vegas Detention Center, but the city recently put in notice that it wants to run its own facility again.

Dzurenda this week told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which first reported on his consulting plan, that “I would never have this opportunity ever again, to be able to set it up the way I want it.”

The governor’s office and the NDOC jointly announced Dzurenda’s departure last month, saying that he was leaving after three years in the post to pursue new opportunities and spend more time with his family in Southern Nevada. Dzurenda’s base salary as NDOC director was about $137,000 a year, according to Transparent Nevada.

NDOC spokesman Scott Kelley said that Deputy Director of Operations Harold Wickham will begin serving as acting director of the prisons beginning at 4 p.m. Friday.

9th Circuit dismisses inmate’s case, says Nevada prisons now appear to be treating Humanists equitably

Looking down at inmates in the yard at Northern Nevada Correctional Center

Judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have dismissed the case of a Carson City prisoner who sought to have Humanism — a worldview that does not accept the existence of a supreme being — fully recognized as a religion behind bars.

The case stems from a 2016 lawsuit brought by inmate Benjamin Espinosa against Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) Director James Dzurenda, a prison chaplain, and the department’s Religious Review Team. The lawsuit alleged that Espinosa’s constitutional rights are being denied because NDOC failed to offer Humanists the same benefits as other faith groups.

But as the case was proceeding, NDOC changed course and officially recognized Humanism as a faith group.

Lawyer Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association — a group whose slogan is “Good Without a God” — argued in San Francisco earlier this month that the case was not moot because certain rights, such as recognizing Humanist holidays and pre-approving group meetings, were not explicitly delineated for Humanists on an official religious groups chart. She said those benefits were afforded seemingly automatically to Hebrew Israelites, another religious group approved at the same time.

But in a two-page decision released Thursday, judges noted that Nevada officials “represented to the court that the recognition is ‘very permanent’ and that Humanism is ‘entitled to all the same rights and privileges of all other recognized faith groups.’” 

They said the state is in the clear because “subsequent events made it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said the group would not be giving up yet.

"We still see indications that Humanists imprisoned in the Nevada corrections system aren't yet receiving the same rights and privileges of all other recognized faith groups," he said in an email. "So we'll be seeking to have the entire panel of judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reconsider this hasty decision."

Updated at 3 p.m. on Aug. 22, 2019 to add a comment from the executive director of the American Humanist Association.

Department of Corrections going green with newest prisoner job: Sorting, recycling clothes hangers

Guards walk inside High Desert State Prison as seen on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

The Nevada Department of Corrections’ Silver State Industries program has partnered with Sewing Collection Inc. (SCI) to offer inmates a new job opportunity — sorting clothes hangers by size and type and reboxing them. 

During the first week of operation, 16 inmates at High Desert State Prison sorted, cleaned, and repackaged 2,400 hangers, earning a wage based on productivity. Production is eventually expected to ramp up to 9,000 hangers per week. 

NDOC Director James Dzurenda said in a press release on Tuesday that he hopes the partnership provides low-risk inmates work skills that reduce the likelihood they will commit crimes after leaving prison.

“Silver State Industries does this by involving inmates in everything from clothing manufacturing and woodworking to horse gentling and printing,” Dzurenda said. “Partnering with Sewing Collection Inc. and adding this work to NDOC’s repertoire is a natural expansion.”

SCI previously had hanger recycling operations in Tijuana, Mexico, but wanted to move to the U.S. because of problems with customs and transporting items out of the country.

“This industry will give our inmates a strong work ethic by providing them structure and employment skills,” said NDOC’s Bill Quenga, Deputy Director of NDOC’s Industrial Program. “They will inventory, clean, and repackage thousands of hangers a day, which will teach them valuable warehousing and production skills.“

In addition to hanger sorting, Silver State Industries also provides other prison industry services for sewing clothes, welding, horse raising, printing and auto restoration. State data show that close to 500 inmates, or 3.5 percent of the total Nevada prison population, were working in a Silver State Industries program on an average month in fiscal year 2018. 

Originally established in Los Angeles with only one distribution center and Macy’s as its only customer, SCI has expanded into Ohio, Oregon and Nevada, recycling many of the billion-plus hangers that would otherwise end up in landfills annually. SCI vice president Rob Molaie says that the company could fill up an entire football stadium with the hangers they collect every year. 

Molaie spoke highly of working with Ohio inmates at a meeting with Nevada lawmakers in 2017, telling them that “production was amazing and every day the inmates showed up to work with excitement and joy, and it provided some motivation for the inmates,” according to minutes of the meeting.

But prison labor has not been without controversy, with critics raising questions about whether the low pay for inmates is exploitative and whether the jobs provide useful skills that translate into a competitive job market. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, prisons may be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. Prisoners in Nevada make between $.25 to $5.15 per hour doing various tasks, according to data provided to the group by the NDOC.

When Republican state Sen. Pete Goicoechea asked at the 2017 meeting if the hanger-sorting jobs would pay minimum wage, Quenga said that it would not, adding that Prison Industries would negotiate a rate per hanger.

Lawyer argues that Humanists — who believe in good without a God — get short shrift in Nevada prisons

The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada

Judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday from lawyers fighting for a Carson City prisoner’s right to have Humanism — a worldview that does not accept the existence of a supreme being — fully recognized as a religion behind bars.

The case stems from a 2016 lawsuit brought by inmate Benjamin Espinosa against Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) Director James Dzurenda, a prison chaplain, and the department’s Religious Review Team. The lawsuit alleges that Espinosa’s constitutional rights are being denied because NDOC has failed to offer Humanists the same benefits as other faith groups.

Lawyer Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association — a group whose slogan is “Good Without a God” — first had to fight against the notion that the case was moot because the prison system has since listed Humanism as a recognized religious group on an official chart. She noted that certain rights, such as recognizing Humanist holidays and pre-approving group meetings, are not delineated on the chart for Humanists but were afforded seemingly automatically to Hebrew Israelites, another religious group approved at the same time.

“The case is a charge of discrimination, so the relevant issue is the disparate treatment of two groups,” Miller said. “And the fact that they are claiming our case for discrimination is moot by disparately treating Humanists with another group at that same time, to me, is a little bit absurd.” 

Chief Deputy Nevada Attorney General Randall Gilmer represented the NDOC and pushed for dismissal of the case, telling the three-judge panel in San Francisco that the issue was that Espinosa had not filled out all the appropriate forms to request recognition of specific holidays. He told the judges that in different court filings, Humanists have mentioned different numbers of holidays, and sometimes as few as one.

“These are issues that have to be decided by discussing it with the adherents within the institutions,” Gilmer said. “It would be very weird for us to dictate to them what their holidays should be.”

The judges heard arguments for 20 minutes but did not make a ruling on the case.

Espinosa, 40, is in prison on convictions of robbery and sexual assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced in Washoe County to life in prison with the possibility of parole, according to prison records.

The original complaint says that Espinosa sincerely holds a belief in Humanism, which — like atheism — believes God does not exist. But Humanism also espouses “an affirmative naturalistic outlook; an acceptance of reason, rational analysis, logic, and empiricism as the primary means of attaining truth; an affirmative recognition of ethical duties; and a strong commitment to human rights,” according to the lawsuit. 

Humanists also have holidays including National Day of Reason (May 2), Darwin Day (February 12), HumanLight (in December), as well as solstice-related holidays. They have clergy, who are typically known as “celebrants” and perform weddings, funerals, baby-welcoming ceremonies and counseling, and adherents are united by a document called the Humanist Manifesto III.

“Humanism comforts, guides, and provides meaning to him in the way that religions traditionally provide such comfort, guidance, and meaning,” the lawsuit says of the plaintiff. “By practicing Humanist principles in his relationships, Espinosa is confident that he is acting in a positive way.”

Espinosa sought the opportunity to meet with others who sincerely hold Humanist convictions and to have official prison records reflect that he identifies as a Humanist. Since 2014, Espinosa has been asking for space for Humanists to store materials such as books and DVDs, as well as the opportunity to congregate in groups and discuss their shared worldview. 

But according to the complaint, his requests were either denied or delayed by a chaplain, and no accommodations had been made to Humanists by the time the issue ended up in court. NDOC has at least 27 recognized faith groups, including Scientology, Wicca, Islam and several subgroups of Christianity.

“Defendants’ actions described above lack a secular purpose, have the effect of promoting, favoring and endorsing some religions over others and religion over non-religion generally, and result in an excessive entanglement between government and religion,” the complaint said.

In dismissing the complaint in December 2017, Nevada-based federal Judge Robert C. Jones wrote that Espinosa had failed to say how his Humanist beliefs were distinct from secular moral philosophy to the point that they would qualify as a religion.

Jones also cited Webster’s dictionary, which states that “[R]eligion is the ‘belief in and reverence for a supernatural power accepted as the creator and governor of the universe,’” and a court case that argued that “if anything can be religion, then anything the government does can be construed as favoring one religion over another, and ... the government is paralyzed.” 

In their appeal, the plaintiffs noted that the Federal Bureau of Prisons and prisons in several states formally recognize Humanism as a religion. Miller also criticized the District Court’s conclusion on the matter.

“The Supreme Court already determined that ‘secular humanism’ is a ‘religion’ for constitutional purposes even though humanism need not be a ‘religion’ at all for entitlement to group meetings,” she said in a statement after oral arguments. “The District Court brazenly defied such binding precedent when it held that Espinosa was required to plead that his ‘belief system’ includes a supernatural creator.”