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Fears of coronavirus in prisons grow as Nevada confirms first COVID-19 case behind bars

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

Amerique Phillips, whose mom Mitzi Hendrix is incarcerated at the Jean Conservation Camp in Southern Nevada, said her mother’s questions about the coronavirus started picking up about a week ago.

Hendrix has a TV in her room and has been seeing reports on the news about the dangers of the virus. As word has spread among the inmates at the camp, Phillips said there’s anxiety about what’s going on and confusion about why things are largely business as usual at the rural institution, which can hold up to 240 minimum-custody female inmates who have jobs such as fighting fires and cleaning highways.

“They are hearing about other states that are releasing their minimum custody inmates,” Phillips said in an interview on Wednesday. “They’re wondering how and why minimum custody inmates don’t qualify.”

Those concerns gained new urgency on Thursday, when the Nevada Department of Corrections announced its first case of COVID-19 — a staff member at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs had tested positive and is now self-quarantined at home. The prison, which is the largest in the state and can hold nearly 4,200 male inmates, said it had responded by isolating inmates in their cells, observing inmates and staff for symptoms and sanitizing surfaces with a 10 percent bleach solution.

“Our top priority is the health of staff and inmates at our facilities,” prisons director Charles Daniels said in a statement. “Our preparation and response is deliberate and in accordance with agency contingency plans and protocols. Now that we have a confirmed case, our next goal is mitigating and ultimately preventing the sustained spread of COVID-19.”

A prison spokesperson said he was unable to immediately respond to questions from The Nevada Independent on Thursday evening about the situation. Those included how many inmates and staff might be quarantined, whether inmates have been tested for COVID-19, whether inmates are double-bunked or whether they are barred from any congregate activities, such as eating in a cafeteria, and whether the agency is confident it has enough medical staff at each institution to handle serious COVID-19 cases.

Gov. Steve Sisolak has not committed to any mass release of inmates to ease crowding and to reduce the risk of transmission — a move that some other states have taken. In Iowa, certain non-violent county-level inmates were being released early, and New Jersey planned to release about 1,000 low-risk inmates.

In California, lawyers for prisoners asked a federal judge for an order to release low-risk inmates with less than a year left in their sentences, as well as relocation or release of inmates who are 65 or older or who have health conditions that put them at special risk to COVID-19.

“All options that could help prevent the spread and keep people safe are on the table,” said Meghin Delaney, a Sisolak spokeswoman. “He is proud of the proactive preparation that Director Daniels has put in place and is grateful for his many years of experience that has ensured he is prepared for this, but as we know, this is an unpredictable situation. Part of being prepared is having contingency plans ready and the willingness to explore new options as situations develop.”

Nevada prison officials said they had taken several steps starting early this month to prevent the spread, including suspending visitation and doing more cleaning. But some of the facilities lack robust and round-the-clock medical staff, especially at smaller correctional centers. Phillips said that her mother had to be transferred to Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas a few months back because the camp didn’t have the medical staff to treat her.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, and there’s a lack of protection,” Phillips said. “Essentially all the things we’re doing to protect ourselves, that’s not being done or communicated in the prison.”

Phillips said optimism and wishful thinking isn’t enough. She is calling for drastic actions, such as releasing all low-level inmates.

“[The prisons system’s] response has to do with a hope that there isn’t an outbreak,” she added.

Joe Roberts, an officer at Lovelock Correctional Center and union president for the AFSCME Big Meadows chapter, said he wants to see a sense of urgency around protecting prison staff.

“They really need to start prioritizing safety protocols, equipment, cleaning supplies,” he said. “It should be put on priority number one.”

The prisons have had a notoriously difficult time recruiting and retaining officers. The staffing problems could get worse if more officers become sick and are unable to show up to work.

“We’re in a situation where we need to have to take this seriously. We are essential employees. We can’t shut down,” he said. “We’re already very, very, very short staffed, and that was like this before the outbreak happened.”

Phillips understands that there are complications to her idea of releasing inmates en masse. While she said her mother could live with family members if she’s released, others do not have a suitable place to stay at the moment if they are let out early.

She also acknowledged the justice factor — how should the state balance health and safety of the inmates with the need for them to be held accountable for the crimes on their records? 

But for Phillips, it’s a matter of safety for her mother, who absent any action will not be eligible for parole until July 2021.

“You only get one,” she said about her mom. “I do want to make sure she has the best protection possible.”

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