CARSON CITY — A growing prison population, reduced federal grants, aging facilities and inmate hospital care are taxing the Nevada Department of Corrections and will be the focus of budget discussions during the upcoming legislative session, prison officials said Tuesday.
Greg Cox, corrections director, told members of the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees that more staff and facility maintenance are priorities for the upcoming biennium.
Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget includes funding to hire about 100 additional correctional officers, at a cost of $7.5 million, based on a study by the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
“We’re at minimum staffing,” Cox told lawmakers. “I really think and believe we’re asking for something we’ve desperately needed for years.”
He added, “It’s a tough job, folks.”
Nevada’s average prison population of 12,739 in 2014 is projected to increase to 12,882 over the next two years. Cox warned that trying to forecast inmate population growth is tricky but that often it matches the pace of growth in the state’s general population, as seen when Nevada boomed in 2007 before declining during the recession when people left the state to find jobs elsewhere.
“One thing that’s clear, we’re starting to grow again. Certainly I hope the forecast is going to be accurate,” Cox said.
In 2013, Nevada had 5,753 inmate admissions. Of those, 3,113 or 54 percent were new to the system; 23 percent were probation violators; and 16 percent were parole violators.
Southern Nevada Correctional Center, closed since 2007, is available if more beds are necessary but would carry a hefty price tag of $46 million to reopen and operate for two years, Cox said.
Sandoval’s proposed $7.3 billion general fund budget includes $632 million for public safety, with a large chunk of that for corrections.
Besides general inmate population growth, officials say the number of female inmates is pushing the limit on available beds. “We do have beds but will require staff to open those beds,” Cox said.
The percentage of maximum- and medium-security inmates also is increasing, which means higher costs.
Another big cost factor is inmate hospitalization. Cox said Carson-Tahoe Regional Medical Center in Carson City is refusing to take inmates under Medicaid except emergency cases, forcing the state prisons in Nevada’s capital city to take those prisoners to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno 30 miles away.
Under the federal health care law, inmates who require hospitalization for 24 hours or more are deemed to be Medicaid-eligible. Hospitals are reimbursed just a small fraction of their actual costs, a factor noted by state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.
“If the hospital can’t make money nobody in the community gets health care,” Kieckhefer said. “The bottom line is we don’t pay a decent Medicaid rate for them to have 20 percent of their patients on Medicaid.”
Ed Epperson, president and CEO of Carson Tahoe Health, echoed Kieckhefer’s observation in a statement late Tuesday. He said the Department of Corrections previously covered inmates through a private insurer, but under the Affordable Care Act switched them to Medicaid, a move the state said would save $5 million.
“In reality it was shifting the cost of inmate health care to hospitals and the federal government,” Epperson said. “Our small community cannot bear the medical care cost of the state’s prison system, only receiving reimbursement for a mere 10 percent of charges.”
Corrections officials Tuesday also said they will ask lawmakers to rein in public records requests filed by inmates.
“We have inmates asking for other inmate records,” Cox said. Others have asked for facility staffing records, details on meals served in recent years and the number of copies made on a particular copy machine.
“A lot of inmate requests are just for harassment,” Deputy Director Scott Sisco told reporters.
Contact Sandra Chereb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb.
See all of our coverage: 2015 Nevada Legislature.