the nevada independent logo
Prison bars. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Bob Moore

In regard to Ms. Hanan’s thoughtful and compassionate op-ed as a blueprint to release some Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) inmates early due to the risk of COVID-19 virus, I want to open by saying I am not pushing back on her facts, nor the probable outcome of widespread infection within the NDOC facilities. Her op-ed focuses for the most part on statistics and release. I want to address how the inmates got there in the first place, and how we must be very, very careful in their release.

Before diving in, an important caveat: I am a State of Nevada employee, but I am not and never have been an NDOC employee. I taught in the three Carson City prisons for many years as an adjunct instructor for Western Nevada Community College. I never got a paycheck from, nor was in the employ of, NDOC.

My interactions with my students was close-up and personal every day. To be permitted to get that close, I was required to attend a mandatory NDOC class on surviving in prison and interacting with inmates. The point hammered in each session was that inmates were incarcerated because they proved they cannot follow society’s basic rules. That judgment came at the hands of a jury of their peers or through a plea bargain to avoid such a judgment. They did not “accidently” land in prison.

That main lesson did not seem to match the reality of my classes. Almost without exception, my students were smart, articulate, funny as hell, and eager to learn. I couldn’t teach them fast enough. As for the “danger” part that folks on the outside always ask me about, I had the option to remove inmates who made me feel uncomfortable. Out of hundreds of students and dozens of classes, I exercised that option once. That student apologized the next week, and I let him back into class.

They sound like model citizens, right? The ones that our communities would welcome back into our communities. After the first week of lessons, I naively asked the captain of the correctional officers (never “guards,” by the way) why these guys were locked up.

His answer was simple: “Drugs, man.”

As I said, inmates proved to the legal system that they cannot follow society’s basic rules, and one of those rules is do not get behind the wheel of a car after three beers in an hour. Or sell a couple of kilos of [insert your preferred illicit drug here] to clients. Or brew meth in your bathtub. Or beat your partner and/or kids while under the influence. And so on, and on, and on.

While we have this necessary debate at the high level, the Nevada Department of Corrections, our elected law enforcement officers, and the courts recognize the danger of letting substance addicts out on the streets. For instance, Judge Linda Bell’s recent order to Sheriff Joe Lombardo to release inmates from the Clark County Detention Center specifically excluded [emphasis added]: “An inmate…if serving a sentence for a crime of violence or driving under the influence of alcohol or a prohibited substance.”

Bottom line: drugs and alcohol change everything and everybody for the worst. Call it a disease or an addiction or whatever, the courts have seen time and again that the weakest among us do not have the necessary defenses to protect ourselves from making bad decisions under the influence. To release a group of people deprived of their cocaine for years, or maybe decades in some cases, without reasonable assistance is setting them up for failure. The outcomes of that failure probably would involve innocent victims. Again.

Let us continue this important debate on early release, and by all means, let us save these people’s lives and health if we can. But please bookend the debate with the reality of why the inmates are inmates in the first place. And if or when we do release them for compassionate reasons, let us do so along with the housing, jobs, and addiction counseling so they do not make the same dumb choices. If we do not, many of the released inmates will fall back into the bottle and will break society’s rules again, and we will have gained nothing for our compassion. Nothing, that is, except the new pain in our communities. 

Bob Moore is a long-time Nevadan and USAF veteran, and a proud graduate of Carson High School and the Harvard on the Truckee. When he's not working for the State, he's a self-published novelist, with some of them set in the Silver State. Liz has put up with him for 37+ years.

Comment Policy (updated 10/4/19): Please keep your comments civil. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, use an excess of profanity, make verifiably false statements or are otherwise nasty.
correct us
ideas & story tips