Huffington Post: Nevada: The Shooting Gallery

This is a featured story in the Huffington Post Highline, Dec. 2015, about guards using shotguns in the prisons run by NDOC, and the deadly results this practice brings with it.

AUTHOR: Dana Liebelson, ARTIST: Corey Brickley

Guards inside prisons shouldn’t have guns. That’s pretty much an accepted fact. Except in Nevada—and the results are mayhem and death.

In the solitary unit at High Desert State Prison in Nevada, the guards usually follow a simple practice: Never let two inmates out of their cells at once, because you never know what might go wrong. The prison is a massive complex less than an hour from Las Vegas, surrounded by electric fences with razor ribbon and then miles of brush and gravel. In “the hole,” as the solitary unit is known, inmates are isolated for around 23 hours a day—sometimes because they’re being punished, sometimes for their own protection. One evening last November, a 38-year-old corrections officer named Jeff Castro was supervising prisoners as they took turns in the shower cage when two inmates were released into the corridor at the same time.

Andrew Arevalo was a heavily tattooed, round-faced 24-year-old who had been convicted of stealing two paint machines. Carlos Perez, who was four years older, was serving time for hitting a man with a two-by-four and was due to get out of prison in March. Even though they both had their hands restrained behind their backs, they started trying to fight. To Steve McNeill, a prisoner who was watching from his cell, it looked pretty funny: two guys in T-shirts and boxer shorts yelling at each other, clumsily kicking at each other’s shins and then backing away. “Neither could affect an effective offensive,” McNeill recalled. “It was like some awkward and quirky dance, then ‘BOOM.’”

About 30 feet away, another officer was manning the control room—a trainee named John-Raynaldo Ramos. His job was to remotely open the cell doors from “the bubble,” the glass room overlooking the floor. The elevated booth is equipped with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 7 1/2-birdshot—the same tiny pellets that sport shooters use to blow apart clay pigeons and that hunters use to kill birds and rabbits. The windows of the bubble, which are reinforced with security bars, can be opened to aim a gun through. “Get on the ground,” Ramos ordered the two men.

Jackie Crawford, who served as Nevada’s director of corrections from 2000 to 2005, also pointed to the state’s historically low staffing levels. She described an instance when inmates were fighting under a gun post at High Desert, but the officer was too close to fire on them. One inmate was seriously injured and subsequently died, she said. However, she added, “You can’t control inmates just with gun towers or other uses of force. There needs to be treatment, training, education and meaningful work programs.” The warden of High Desert when Perez was shot, Dwight Neven, defended the policy emphatically in court in June 2015, testifying that it protects officers. The law, he said, allows “my officers to break up even a small altercation in the dining hall with whatever level of force is necessary.”

Read the rest here.

Danger in the Prisons

From: Travis N. Barrick, in: Las Vegas Sun, Dec. 17th 2012

Advocating on behalf of prison inmates can be a lonely task. Politicians and taxpayers are understandably focused on the kids and the kitchen table and are largely unsympathetic to the problems of convicted felons.

But there’s an issue developing inside prisons that’s threatening to move outside those walls. It’s looming as a potentially catastrophic public health risk to the mainstream population.

The rate of hepatitis C in prison populations has raised red flags for at least a decade at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Infections shows prison inmates are infected at a significantly higher rate than the population as a whole. It also suggests that person-to-person transmission, typically through tattooing, continues during incarceration, making infection all the more likely as more time is spent in an institution.

If you don’t find this sobering, you should, because more than 95 percent of prison inmates are released back into society, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. An unacceptable number will carry hepatitis C back into neighborhoods and workplaces, where they will continue living with the undetected disease for decades. They will have ample occasion to spread it in their social circles.

The incidence of hepatitis C among Nevada prison inmates is not known because the Nevada Department of Corrections doesn’t administer a test for it upon entry.

Nevada CURE, a nonprofit group devoted to reforms in the prison system, wants a statute in Nevada requiring the state to administer a routine hepatitis C test to inmates entering the system.

There’s a humanitarian concern: Untreated hepatitis C causes a lingering, painful death, ravaging the liver. But consider, too, the expense of treating the end-stage complications of cirrhosis or cancer, compared with the smaller, controllable cost of the test and some antiviral treatments that are available.

Attempts to discuss a hepatitis C testing regimen with the state prison director have been largely ignored. During a face-to-face meeting in June, Director James G. Cox said immediately that cost would be a concern.

We aren’t sure whether Cox meant the cost of the tests or the cost from the Pandora’s box that would surely follow — the necessity to give lengthy treatments to the hundreds of inmates who would be expected to test positive. It could conceivably be tens of thousands of dollars per case. And the treatment is not always successful, either.

It’s a stiff price tag, but it’s less costly, and less dangerous for everyone, than the current alternative.

In fairness, Cox has a challenging package of responsibilities. He’s running a crowded prison system that has had safety and labor issues. He’s doing the job in the face of a tightening state budget that has left him with limited options.

At our June meeting, Cox said he would investigate the health procedures related to hepatitis C in other jurisdictions. Despite several follow-up reminders to his office, we’ve heard nothing back.

Since we expect the prison director to take seriously a threat to people inside and outside the walls, we followed up this fall with a public records request for information. The state took longer than the law allows to respond, and the documents we received raise more questions than they answer.

Las Vegas is no stranger to the horrors of hepatitis C. Our city is still living with the fallout from an episode in which innocent patients were infected with the virus in a clinical setting.

The disease also is in the spotlight nationwide. After discovering a higher-than-expected rate of infection in Baby Boomers, the CDC recently recommended a hepatitis C test for all adults born between 1945 and 1965.

The rate among incarcerated people is higher still and can’t be viewed as contained if it isn’t even monitored.

Nevada CURE does not regularly tug on the sleeve of the average citizen to ask for help getting something done. But we believe this issue is a cause for general alarm.

Travis N. Barrick is a Las Vegas attorney and vice president of Nevada CURE.