Families of inmates seek independent ombudsman to handle prisoners’ complaints
As Nevada prisoners raise concerns about inadequate food, medical care, air conditioning and more, advocates for incarcerated people are looking to add an independent ombudsman to more effectively address the complaints.
Jodi Hocking, founder of the nonprofit inmate advocacy group Return Strong, helped present a bill that would create an Office of the Ombudsman — impartial and independent of the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) — that would manage grievances filed by prisoners that adversely affect the health, safety, welfare and rights of those in custody. The office would be under the administration of the attorney general.
The policy, AB452, also seeks to require the department to give families a 72-hour notice when visiting is canceled for the day. Currently, visitation can be canceled at any moment without notice, leaving families disheartened after long drives or flights to Northern Nevada.
“Those experiences are often hidden,” Hocking said during a May 16 hearing for the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And what we've been calling for all along is communication and transparency, and understanding and oversight.”
The bill passed out of the Assembly on April 19 with all Republicans opposed.
If the measure passes, the director of NDOC would be required to sign off on emergency visitation cancellations and notify families within two hours, and the department would have to submit a quarterly report that details the number of cancellations at each facility and why they occurred to the Board of State Prison Commissioners. Hocking presented the measure with Assemblywoman Sabra Newby (D-Las Vegas), who sponsored the bill, and NDOC Director James Dzurenda.
NDOC said the cost of implementing the office could not be determined. Dzurenda said the infrastructure for an ombudsman already exists at the attorney general’s office.
“It does reduce litigation cases in the future and it does help everything to be more transparent about the agency, especially if we're an agency that's supposed to be transparent and not hiding anything,” Dzurenda said about the proposed office.
Changes to the grievance process
According to the NDOC website, there is a three-step process when an inmate or family member files a grievance against a prison worker. The first step is a complaint that would then be investigated by the inspector general, who would assign it a case number and classification.
Based on the classification, the complaint is investigated by a supervisor in the appropriate division, who interviews inmates and everyone involved, regarding the claims. Once the investigation is complete, the case is submitted to the worker’s division head for “adjudication or appropriate action.”
Strict limitations for prisoners bar them from filing more than one complaint a week, filing a complaint on behalf of another inmate except under certain circumstances, filing multiple grievances in one complaint, and filing a grievance previously filed, even if the remedy requested is different in subsequent cases.
Dzurenda said a potential last step takes place at the director's office and if the problem is still not resolved, inmates could take the issue to court. The ombudsman would be an arbitrator of these cases before they go to court, determining if they need to go further. The ombudsman would also provide training for handling grievances and have access to the internal grievance audit system called NOTIS (Nevada Offender Tracking Information System).
“I think the purpose of this would be to have a separate, complete entity,” Dzurenda said, “that can have somewhat of an oversight, not a legal oversight, to show discrepancies, inconsistencies or patterns of things that shouldn't happen.”
He said the agency could hire a private firm using emergency dollars designated for staffing — known as Category 1 funding — for the first year to see if the change results in less litigation, problems and tension.
Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Henderson) questioned whether the extra funds should go to an ombudsman rather than hiring more staff because staff shortages contribute to visit cancellations.
“We put you in this position for a reason,” he said. “We trust that you're going to bring the Department of Corrections into the new millennium, if you will, and make sure that our officers are safe, making sure that prisoners are appropriately taken care of.”
In February, Dzurenda told lawmakers during an Assembly Judiciary Committee that critically low prison staffing is the No. 1 focus of the prison system and that the agency faces staff vacancy rates of 23 percent in Southern Nevada and nearly 60 percent at some Northern Nevada facilities.
Stone suggested that the ombudsman portion of the policy be removed and urged Dzurenda to focus resources solely on staffing “troops.”
“Don't you think that it might be more appropriate to pass this bill without the ombudsman to give you the opportunity to fix these problems?” Stone said. “And then in 2025, come back to us and say that this expenditure of the ombudsman … is proven to be needed.”
Dzurenda told lawmakers that the purpose of the ombudsman is to make sure that staff follow policies and procedures and remain in compliance with the law.
Families cry out for an ombudsman
Families, advocates and formerly incarcerated people pleaded for the new office while sharing painful experiences with NDOC.
Pamela Browning, who has a loved one in custody at NDOC, volunteers for Return Strong and said over the last five months, they’ve received nearly 2,000 letters about 175 topics concerning prison conditions including food quantity and quality, correctional abuse, excessive lockdowns, medical, mental and dental health neglect, and the lack of air conditioning and cleaning supplies. Bill proponents said they believe an ombudsman could functionally advocate on behalf of prisoners by auditing claims brought forward through grievances.
“I was thinking about what to write, I was thinking about our letters and how many come in, the topics that are covered and how little we can actually do to resolve the problems that are shared,” Browning said. “Then I started thinking about how instrumental an ombudsman would be if they had access to NOTIS and could run a report and look at the patterns of problems across the facilities.”
Ashley Gaddis, who was formerly incarcerated at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Facility, said the reason a large number of inmates’ “frustration and anxiety stay on the rise” is because there is a lack of resources coupled with a lack of resolutions to complaints.
“These complaints ranged from the lack of food, outrageous pricing for store items, visitation [cancellations], abuse and assaults,” she said. “Most of these complaints have been exhausted using the grievance process and remain unresolved.”
Complaints remain on file for at least five years following the final decision.
Gaddis said that while incarcerated she spoke with the mental health division at the prison about an officer that she described as a bully who would harass her, and they told her their hands were tied because she was not having homicidal or suicidal thoughts regarding his behavior, which would have prompted their intervention. She said she hesitated to file a grievance for fear of retaliation, but eventually, her family filed a concern with the shift commander.
“I was called to shift command and questioned about the problem and told them I didn't feel safe,” she said. “They continued to defend him and the harassment went on for about three months.”
She said that with an ombudsman there will be “actual and factual resolutions” to the complaints and concerns that go unnoticed, which could reduce the levels of frustration and tension among the prison population.
John Luke, who was formerly incarcerated at High Desert State Prison, said an ombudsman could make the grievance process simpler for inmates, eliminate unfairness when it comes to letting people out of their cells and serving adequate food portions to those in custody, as well as increase accountability for staff members.
He said the grievance process is complex and gives even the savviest inmates a hard time “navigating such basic issues and bringing up simple problems.”
“There have been several times where internal memos are only spoken about and never printed to prevent litigation on lawsuits,” Luke said.
He said an office of an ombudsman could have the “invaluable” ability to interview correctional officers and inmates about “incidents of beatings and murders as well as observe food service in units before and after chow.”
Kris Kovello, a member of Return Strong whose son was previously incarcerated in Pioche, Nevada, said she mainly supported the policy because she believes an ombudsman could solve concerns about hunger.
Her son worked for the Nevada Division of Forestry, which granted him more calories than prisoners in the general population. Kovello said her son told her about hunger pains and that inmates were written up for stealing food after getting seconds.
“He said that dinner [one particular night] was a piece of fish, that was equal to about two fish sticks, a quarter cup of rice and a little bit of dry salad,” she said. “Then he talked to me about the constant hunger pains that never go away.”