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The Nevada Independent

Parents fear for health of incarcerated children, hope for inmate releases amid pandemic

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
CoronavirusCriminal Justice
Looking down at inmates in the yard at Northern Nevada Correctional Center

Diana Zavala’s son, James Wall, was sentenced to prison for seven years and hopes to get out and reunite with his wife and stepchildren when he’s eligible for parole in November.

But Wall, 39, has diabetes so serious that he’s in the medical unit and under constant supervision by staff in his Carson City prison, according to his mother. The coronavirus pandemic — and fear that his underlying condition would make a COVID-19 diagnosis fatal — terrifies her.

“It's not fair for him to have to sit there and wonder if he's going to die in his last year of his seven-year sentence,” said Zavala, who is considering rallying other inmate family members to publicly demand change. “There's no reason for him not to go home.”

Zavala is one of several parents of prisoners in Nevada who told The Nevada Independent they’re desperate for release — or at least greater protection — of their incarcerated children. Their calls come as the ACLU of Nevada and other groups have asked the governor to commute the sentences of people due for release within the year, and other measures to reduce the population of prisons they say could become hotbeds of disease.

Nevada has about 13,000 inmates in a variety of prisons and camps, many located in remote rural communities sometimes hours from major hospitals. Critics say the communal nature of prisons makes it nearly impossible to practice social distancing, and if a COVID-19 outbreak of any scale were to take hold, it would likely overwhelm prison medical capacity and in turn stretch the capacity at community hospitals where inmates with more serious needs are taken.

So far, there’s been no mass release of Nevada prison inmates, although other states have taken steps to move people out of prisons during the pandemic. Utah, California and Colorado, among others, have moved to speed the release of inmates who are close to the end of their sentences.

Asked whether he’s made any decisions on the ACLU’s requests, Sisolak said he had had a discussion with Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty on the matter and that “we’re exploring all options.” Hardesty said Monday that a special meeting of the Nevada Sentencing Commission has been scheduled for April 13.

“There’s a lot to look at as opposed to just letting people out,” he said in a press conference on Wednesday. “You have to look at housing, you have to look at medical care, you have to look at resources that are available. And we’re exploring that.”

As of Monday, three employees in the prison system have tested positive for COVID-19 and are isolating at home — including staff members at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, Ely State Prison and Casa Grande Transitional Housing in Las Vegas. The state has not reported any inmates testing positive for the virus, although a prison spokesman didn’t say whether the test has been administered to any inmates yet. 

“If an offender is suspected of having an illness, or self-reports feeling ill, NDOC medical staff immediately assess the offender and either isolate them in their cell or medically observe them in that facility's infirmary,” said spokesman Scott Kelley. “Staff utilize the appropriate test kits, some of which are provided by the State of Nevada, which are then tested by the State Epidemiologist to determine a diagnosis and treatment.”

The department did indicate that its new director, Charles Daniels, has been visiting correctional institutions across the state to speak with staff about COVID-19 and observe the sanitation protocols implemented in response to the virus. And the agency argues that it’s ready for an outbreak at any of its institutions.

“NDOC’s medical staff are highly trained professionals who have the tools and experience to handle testing for COVID-19 and treatment at all facilities,” Kelley said.

Some experts, including UNLV criminal justice Professor Emily Salisbury, have taken to Twitter to urge immediate action on the matter. She said she’s troubled to see there have so far been hundreds of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex and thinks Nevada should act while “we still have time.”

“If we’re not talking about this in terms of releasing people, I do feel like people will die,” Salisbury said in an interview. “I don’t feel that this is an opportunity for releasing people en masse because of my political beliefs. It's my expert opinion, as someone who's an expert on offender risk assessment, that there are lots of people who are low risk to public safety who can be released and who should be released.”

How might it work?

Hardesty, who chairs the Nevada Sentencing Commission, said Sisolak has asked him to look into what jails and prisons are doing in response to COVID-19.

He said he has talked with Daniels and planned to talk with Christopher Dericco, chairman of the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners, and wanted to convene the sentencing commission “with the purpose of highlighting what steps have been taken to date” to protect those within the prisons.

“I think that would be really beneficial for the public and for others to know about,” he said.

Hardesty said his question is whether it’s necessary to reduce the prison population to manage the virus. He said he would be concerned if there’s overcrowding in prisons and inmates are living in hallways and closets, for example.

If it was deemed appropriate to release inmates based on their age, medical condition or proximity to their release date, he said the inmates would likely need to be screened by the Board of Pardons Commissioners, because the authority of the prison system and parole board is limited.

“Now that has its own challenges because generally speaking, the pardons board doesn't look at inmate cases or community cases without pretty significant background checks and background investigations and an update on the criminal history and any violations that have occurred within the prison system,” he said. “And so those reports are very time consuming and pretty intensive.”

Other states releasing inmates early have used a variety of mechanisms. In Utah and Georgia, boards of pardons and parole are reviewing the cases of people recommended for early release. In Colorado, the governor issued an executive order granting the prison system broad authority to release people within six months of their parole eligibility date, and in Illinois, the governor signed an executive order streamlining the process for early “good behavior” releases from prison.

Prosecutors point out that while they’re focusing on “priority offenses” during the virus outbreak, victims’ rights need to be a major consideration.

“Unfortunately, crime has not come to a standstill. Serious crime is still taking place and innocent people are still being victimized,” the office of Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks said in a statement. “Certain offenders should remain in jail for the safety of their victims and of our community.” 

Salisbury said releases could be decided based on the risk that individual inmates pose to society.

“It would mean taking a hard look at individual sentences and really ramping up an exploration of the Nevada risk assessment scores of people,” Salisbury said. “If we want to talk about releasing the most low risk people, we should have that conversation starting with women, because they are far lower risk than incarcerated men.”

She said there may be a need to relax certain requirements especially around housing. Nevada often has hundreds of inmates remaining in prison past their parole eligibility date, typically because state officials have not approved their proposed housing plan.

“Some people have places to go but they don’t get passed through as approved by parole and probation to go to those places,” she said. “Maybe there’s housing, but they don’t have, for instance, an overhead sprinkler system. Well let’s waive that [law] temporarily.”

Salisbury also thinks it’s “time to get creative” about places to house people leaving prison, pointing to hotels that are currently empty. 

“It’s highlighting the massive crisis that has already existed in Nevada that we don’t have adequate housing and transitional housing for formerly incarcerated people,” she said.

Leaders at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which has advocated for “decarceration,” said they want Nevada to follow the lead of other states that are letting vulnerable people out early.

“We feel it also calls into question the utility of even incarcerating these folks instead of just giving them a court date,” said Laura Martin, executive director of PLAN Action. “We hope these short term fixes in the time of COVID19 ... lead to long term institutional change that actually supports our community.”

People coming in from outside

Much of the concern about prisons stems from fears that staff who come and go each day will be exposed to the virus and unwittingly bring it into prisons, where inmates are “sitting ducks” unable to keep their distance and where staff must show up to maintain security.

AFSCME, the union representing correctional officers, raised concerns about the health of staff in an open letter to the press last week. They said that on March 19, they requested a standardized screening process for all staff and visitors entering state facilities and more guidance on paid administrative leave for vulnerable workers, but had not received a response as of Thursday.

“As front-line workers, state employees continue to put their health, and the health of our communities, at risk if they are not provided with appropriate procedures and equipment to keep them safe,” the union wrote in the letter. “When our communities need us in a time of crisis, public service workers show up and continue to provide vital services for Nevadans. It is in the best interest of our communities that state employees are provided with the appropriate safety precautions needed for these challenging times.” 

Work at the prisons continues even as Sisolak ordered many other state offices to close and asked employees to work from home if possible.

Federal inmates within Nevada

Concerns about the ingress of infected people extends beyond the state-run facilities. Mary Barbee is worried about her two sons Robert and Melvin, who are serving time on federal drug convictions at Nevada Southern Detention Center in Pahrump, which is privately run by the company CoreCivic. 

Barbee said one of her sons recently called in a panic to say a dozen inmates were brought into the facility overnight on March 26 and feared exposure to the virus. Her sons, who are in their mid-40s, have conditions including diverticulitis, asthma and hypertension that she already doesn’t think the prison has done enough to address. 

Desiree Sida of the U.S. Marshals Service in Nevada declined to comment on specific inmate transfers but said protocols are in place to protect against the spread of the disease. She said no staff in the detention center or working to transport inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

The federal Bureau of Prisons initially suspended inmate facility transfers in mid-March because of COVID-19 but then issued a clarification a few days later emphasizing numerous exceptions to that policy.

CoreCivic said there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the detention center and that the company is adhering to CDC guidelines on sanitation, including “cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, objects and shared equipment that are frequently touched or used by staff members and those entrusted to our care” with commercial cleaning products.

Barbee, who said it’s inmates who are doing the cleaning when professionals should be enlisted, said she doesn’t trust that the prison is doing enough to prevent the spread of the disease. 

“I have dire concerns,” Barbee said. “If something happens to my son, I’m going to sue them from here to eternity.”

Community supervision

Another consideration is providing people the support they need after release from prison, especially in the complicated environment of coronavirus shutdowns when jobs are hard to come by and services have been reduced.

“If you release them, they need to be supervised,” Hardesty said. “So all you're doing is taking people from the prison and placing them under the supervision of an already over taxed or over challenged probation department. So this has to be really thought about.”

The probation department said that to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it has had to suspend certain activities, such as in-office monthly reporting at its offices and services provided at the Day Reporting Center. The ACLU has requested that officers suspend even more activities — including jailing people if they commit a “technical” violation of their parole conditions but haven’t committed a new crime.

Officers are conducting home visits “while taking necessary health and safety precautions,” according to Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kim Yoko Smith. Asked if the division had implemented the ACLU’s recommendation on technical violations, officials said “violations would be considered on a case-by-case basis based on public safety and the safety and well-being of the supervised individual.”

There are also certain restrictions on parolees and probationers seeking transfers through the “Interstate Compact” so they can move and be supervised in other states. Nevada is processing mandatory transfer requests but suspended work on discretionary transfers, and other states have varying levels of hold on transfers.

Thirty-year-old Zach Webster, who returned to Las Vegas from the minimum-security Ely Conservation Camp in mid-March, said pandemic-related closures precluded him from entering Casa Grande Transitional Housing as he reentered the community. He said it’s not exactly ideal for people just released from prison to enter a situation with few jobs available and services curtailed.

“More structure is definitely better especially for those getting released,” he said.

He instead is staying with a friend and working odd jobs, and hoping the restrictions with the Interstate Compact don’t prevent him from moving to Vermont in coming days to reunite with his fiancee and family. But he’s happy to be out from the conservation camp, where he said a sense of security and separation from the pandemic was punctured in more recent days by growing fear about COVID-19 among the correctional officers.

“I do feel safer now that I am out,” he said.


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