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A guard tower at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City on May 19, 2017. Photo by David Calvert

Nevada is embarking on a widespread effort to test its prison population for COVID-19, but one group is largely left out — the approximately 100 Nevada inmates who remain in a private prison in Arizona.

The Nevada Department of Corrections says the prisoners, who are housed at the 1,926-bed Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, have not been tested. CoreCivic, which runs the facility, said no inmates and three staff members have tested positive so far but were either not working with offenders or hadn’t been to the facility for a while.

Other CoreCivic facilities in Eloy that are just down the road from the Saguaro prison and house ICE detainees have seen major outbreaks. There have been 123 cases reported at the Eloy Detention Center as of Monday, and a correctional officer died of possible COVID-19 complications over the weekend; another 81 cases have been reported at the nearby La Palma Correctional Facility. 

Arizona has been experiencing a new surge in cases, with more than 2,519 new cases and 32 additional deaths reported on Thursday. Nevada, which is a bit less than half the size of Arizona, reported 234 new cases on Thursday and two new deaths.

The situation has been concerning for Las Vegas attorney Nick Shook, who unsuccessfully tried to get a client released from the private prison on the basis of his risk for contracting COVID-19. He argues that if the company were to detect a large number of inmates with the illness, they would start losing government contracts.

“They have incentive to test as few people as possible,” he said. 

Asked about the situation, a CoreCivic spokesman directed questions about the testing of Nevada inmates to Nevada officials, and listed precautions it had taken to prevent the spread of the virus. Those include screening employees who enter the facility, encouraging social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and providing face masks “to all staff and those in our care.”

Meanwhile, Nevada has completed a large portion of its project to test all inmates and staff. As of Wednesday, 8,766 inmates had been tested, or 74 percent of the prison population. Fifty-two percent of staff members, or 1,563 people, have been tested. 

On Thursday, a state dashboard reported that 42 people — 33 staff and nine inmates — had tested positive within Nevada Department of Corrections facilities.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on whether the state would request testing of inmates in Arizona, or whether it had authority to compel CoreCivic to test the inmates. A Nevada prisons spokesman said the inmates are tentatively scheduled to return to Nevada later in the year and would be tested for COVID-19 upon their return.

Lawmakers passed a bill in the 2019 session that bans the state from using private prisons, with proponents arguing that companies should not profit from people being incarcerated. But that ban doesn’t take effect until mid-2022.

“My hope is that if the Legislature said we want to get rid of private prisons, we'll get rid of private prisons,” Shook said. 

Early release of prisoners

The Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners took a preliminary step on Wednesday to release certain inmates early if they are at elevated risk of serious health consequences from coronavirus.

The board, which includes Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and members of the Nevada Supreme Court, unanimously voted to have prison and parole officials produce a list of inmates who might be a good candidate for early release. Those prisoners would need consideration by the pardons board before they could go before the parole board early.

The action is an expansion of a recommendation made in April by the Nevada Sentencing Commission. After several split votes, the panel recommended the early implementation of a geriatric parole statute set to take effect in April. 

It would have applied to a group of offenders who do not have violent or sex offenses, have served the majority of their sentence and are over the age of 65, among other qualifications. Only a handful of people were expected to be eligible.

At a Wednesday meeting, Sisolak said he was worried about people leaving prison and going into an environment with high unemployment, but Justice James Hardesty said the inmates under consideration would be people who had families to take them in or other places to go. 

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