State retains oversight of inmate care

CARSON CITY -- The state Board of Prison Commissioners has rejected a consent decree that would have let federal courts oversee medical care at Ely State Prison.

The board refused Wednesday to sign the decree sought by the American Civil Liberties Union after Dr. Bruce Bannister, the prisons medical director, said Corrections Director Howard Skolnik said the Corrections Department compiled a report that refutes ACLU allegations of substandard care at the Ely prison.

Board members are Gov. Jim Gibbons, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller.

The ACLU released a report in December that said health care treatment at the Ely prison was deplorable. The organization threatened to sue the state unless quick improvements were made.

Dr. William Noel, an ACLU-contracted doctor who visited the prison and studied medical files of 35 inmates, called the treatment Ely inmates receive "the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering that I have ever encountered in the medical profession."

At the time, the Ely prison had been without a full-time physician for 18 months. The inmates received care from a physician's assistant and a half-time physician.

But Skolnik said Wednesday that a full-time doctor has just been hired, adding that the 1,100-inmate prison now is staffed at all hours by nurses and has two doctors and a physician's assistant on staff.

In response to questions from Gibbons, Bannister said an inmate who breaks his arm would receive the same level of treatment as someone in a nonprison setting who goes to an emergency room with the same injury.

Skolnik gave commissioners a report that he and Bannister said refuted all charges raised by the ACLU.

He also contended that Noel never worked in a prison setting and questioned his ability to judge inmate medical care.

Bannister suggested that allegations of bad care at Ely were been brought by disgruntled former medical personnel.

"The people who were giving bad medical care are gone," he said.

Skolnik declined to make copies of the department's report available to others, saying not every inmate had consented to making his situation known publicly. He suggested names could be blackened and the report released.

The Review-Journal requested that Cortez Masto release a copy of the report. She said attorneys on her staff will look into the request.

ACLU state director Gary Peck expressed disappointment at the board's decision and again suggested his organization might sue the state.

"We were trying hard to avoid litigation," Peck said in a teleconference from Las Vegas.

He questioned why Skolnik earlier expressed reluctance to have national prison health care experts certify that the prison meets medical standards if he was so sure about the quality of care in Ely.

Peck also noted that nine inmates at Ely with health problems were transferred to the High Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs after the ACLU released its report on substandard medical care.

The ACLU wants to return to Ely and also to investigate health care at Indian Springs, according to Peck..

Skolnik said he never again would allow the ACLU to select a doctor to review medical conditions in the prison. If prison health care needs to be reviewed, he said, the doctor should be selected by the state Board of Medical Examiners. Commissioners agreed.