Indy Q&A: New prisons director Charles Daniels on his vision for Nevada corrections
Charles Daniels was in the Air Force serving in military law enforcement and confinement when he realized his life calling was corrections.
“I found a real joy and love for what I do,” Daniels said in an interview this week. “I was fascinated with just the security mechanisms and such, and I was also fascinated with the individuals that found their way on the other side of the fence.”
When he got out of the military in 1988, there was a government hiring freeze nationwide with the exception of corrections, so he took a job in a federal prison. More than 30 years later, he’s had 13 assignments in the prison realm, including now as the new director of the Nevada Department of Corrections.
Appointed by Gov. Steve Sisolak in December, Daniels is fresh off a yearlong assignment at the Alabama Department of Corrections, where he was working to help improve a system so problem-plagued that the federal Department of Justice got involved.
But he was drawn to the job opening in Nevada, where he and his wife had planned to retire and where he had a house built a few years ago.
Daniels shares his insights and vision for Nevada prisons in this interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In your 30-plus year career, how have you seen corrections change?
When I joined, there was still a stronghold of ideology that was more for punishment for anyone that ended up in prison …
But as time went on, they really got away from that model and transitioned to a more rehabilitative model. And that model was prevalent as we went through the 80s and then someone gave it some good thought and said, you know, rehabilitation is something that folks get involved in if they feel like it or if they want to, but if they don't have an interest in it, there's no way to help have an impact on anyone's life …
Then we went more into a reentry model. And reentry says, not only do you start that assessment from the very first time you get this inmate, but after you assess them, then you have to funnel him into programs that will address his underlying needs, but then also prepare him or her for the eventual reentry to society.
And that with that eventual release, we have to ensure that they have solid vocational training, that they've got work skills, that they've got life skills. We've got to ensure that one day leave us, they are ready to stay and be productive when they return back into society.
Why did you leave the job after one year in Alabama?
The only reason I came was because it was here, in my town, where I live and my wife and my kids are. Other than that I would have stayed in Alabama to finish the job. I had a glorious job and it was challenging and I wanted to be a part of furthering what we were doing. We had a great plan, DOJ was excited about it. The courts were excited about it, and we were moving forward ...
I would not have left that job for any other job except this one.
Do you think it’s realistic to get Nevada inmates out of a private prison in Arizona on schedule?
We will get those inmates back, and we will get them back on schedule. There's no question about it. Number one, I'm mandated. Number two, I can assimilate those inmates back into our custody, and I'm looking forward to it … The citizens of Nevada expect that their loved ones, if somehow they're incarcerated, they have access to them, and right now, they're so far away.
And I believe also that prisons are inherently governmental, not for profit. That's just my personal opinion.
Do you think recent criminal justice reform legislation will reduce the prison population?
Right now there's a heavy lift. Our projection is that we would have a subtle increase ...
And I was just looking at our projections this morning. But what I noticed is that when you look at our actual inmate population, we're actually trending downward ...
Although I can't speak to any particular initiative that has been the appropriate driver, I have met with many of our legislators already since I've been here. I met with many of the folks in our judiciary. I met, obviously, with the governor and his team. And every single entity is committed, and I mean a true commitment, to try to have a positive impact on criminal justice reform. …
There's a passion for it. This isn't just talk. This isn't just to cut money, cut funds … there's a passion for understanding that our inmates are connected to others.
As you prepare your budget request, do you think we’ll be entertaining the idea of building a new prison or otherwise increasing capacity?
There will be discussion because we're also examining where we are in the agency and where exactly do we have our inmates and under what programs and what are we offering. And of course, our primary goal is going to always be public safety. So do we have our inmates that required more secure conditions of confinement at the right place? But are we also allowing them to get out?
So we're looking at where we have our inmates, and then we're looking at the population centers that can resource our facilities with the teachers and the training and the staff. And so we're looking at some realignments.
I can't give you specifics right now, only because it would be inappropriate ... I also need time to sit down and give them the long version of what I want to do so they can ask me the appropriate questions to ensure that we're spending the taxpayers wisely.
The Vera Institute recently completed a study on solitary confinement or segregation practices in Nevada and concluded it’s still happening, although at a lower rate than before. What are your goals as it relates to segregation?
When we talk about segregation, there's more than one type. You have administrative segregation. You'll have individuals that need protection. You'll have some that are just pending classification. You'll have someone there just because they're currently undergoing an investigation of something that happened either in prison or something that has extended out to the community.
Right now, 6.3 percent of our inmates are in restrictive housing for the entire agency, but out of that, 5.1 percent are in there for administrative purposes pending disciplinary action protection or investigations. So only 1.2 percent of our inmates are in disciplinary segregation.
For me, that's a win. We're doing positive things to ensure that we're identifying what’s going on. If we have to hold somebody accountable, we hold them accountable and then we get them right back out in the game.
No, I don't have a percentage other than zero ... We look at each individual as an individual.
We're obviously a state with the capital punishment. Do you support maintaining the death penalty?
I don't show my personal opinion. I'm an employee of the state of Nevada, and I took a job in which that's a part of it. And when I took the job and I swore my oath, it was to execute the duties of the Nevada Department of Corrections.
As director of Nevada Department of Corrections, do you foresee any problems in carrying out executions, especially with pharmaceutical companies restricting access to lethal injection drugs and in light of the accusations that the department used surreptitious means to get the drugs last time?
I'm not at liberty to discuss that.
You talked about wanting to keep it inmates connected to their families. Obviously, many of our prisons are in far flung locations in the state, and there have been continuing issues with getting broadband access that would maybe make that easier. Where are we at with getting those sites connected and those families connected?
We're reexamining exactly where we have our inmates, what security levels, and then what services they have available. And that also includes vocational training and education and so on.
Also, we'll look at where the majority of our inmates are from and where they live, and we obviously want to have our inmates in a location in which there's more family access and we also want to ensure that we can provide the appropriate education and/or instructors.
Is there movement on improving broadband to prisons?
I’ve been meeting with a lot of people who want to do certain things, but I owe it to the Legislature as well as the governor to give them specifics and cost associated with it.
And so the answer is, are we moving forward? Yes. Have we, we've had meaningful conversations and engagement? The answer is yes. Do we have a full out plan? The answer's no, because it's complicated.
You talked a lot about re-entry. We've been doing things — partnerships with CSN, programs within the prison. What's the next frontier for us in getting these services and these vocational programs into these prisons?
Well, I will tell you there's robust engagement right now, and we're not just dealing with the agencies ourselves. We're working with parole and probation. We're working with many of the criminal justice committees and we're creating partnerships with people that I would say 10 years ago … we would never have done because corrections was somewhat of a closed entity …
But now we're open to having organizations come in and bring whatever they have to bear for our inmates because we no longer look at this as a prison or confinement issue. This is a social issue.
And so I think what has really happened is the mindset has changed … For the vast majority of them, they see them as a civic duty at a minimum, but a societal responsibility, just as I see it.
This upcoming year, you'll see quite a few changes.
There's obviously an effort going on to unionize the corrections employees. Have you been involved in those discussions?
I've had a couple of preliminary meetings with union leadership. We've met with our international folks as well as local Nevada union leaders. My position is very simple — I've worked with unions my entire life as a professional, and not just as a professional, but as a leader in a correctional environment.
I have absolutely, positively no issue with any entity wanting to do the best they can in securing a safe work environment for our staff. I've got no issue with that. Obviously there will be times when they may want to do something and we can't do it, and that's where you get into the negotiation. But in terms of open communication and being welcoming, I welcome them.
Do you have any plans on how to address the persistent shortage of people that want to work in the prisons?
Yes. We're beyond the preliminary stage, but one of the things I don't want to do is put some of this out publicly right now because the negative side is that once the other agencies see what we're trying to do, they'll just match it …
We have some ... options that no one's ever thought about before, and we think that we can use those in our organization and make people want to work with us and stay with us. Right now, there's almost a disincentive because of the pay structure. And these other agencies, whether they be city, county, municipal, they can just flat out out-pay us. And so we have to come up with some inventive ways to make people want to be a part of our system because we're enhancing their life and the life of their families.
Do you have any specific goals related to recidivism?
I don't have any numeric goals. I have societal goals. I have the governor's agenda, I have our goals. We're going to do it.
I believe our programming is stellar and it can be better. I believe our communication and our handoffs with our sister agencies is stellar and it's getting better. And so without an actual numeric goal, you will see a downtrend and significant downtrend. And I'd be proud to speak with you in a year and say this is what the data suggests when you came the first time, and this is what it is now. And I would be stunned if the numbers aren't very favorable.
Any broad statement you want to make about your vision?
Well, my vision is this. I work with a community of people, not just from the governor's office to legislators and the citizens of our cards and the citizens here in Nevada, but I work for my team, for my staff, very proud men and women. I love them to death.
They're extraordinarily competent. They're self motivated. Some of the hardest workers I've ever seen …
They've embraced me and I'm very proud of them. I feel like I'm home. I really do. This is home. I not only live here, my staff have been very inviting, and they want to change our system.
And so we're in sync.