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Nevada prisons ‘a powder keg’ in a pandemic, lawyers say

Updated April 8, 2020 - 8:26 am

Gregory Kerkorian, an heir to the “father of the Las Vegas megaresort,” turned 74 inside a Nevada prison on Monday.

He’s serving a one- to four-year sentence at Southern Desert Correctional Center on animal cruelty charges. His lawyers say that keeping him behind bars during the coronavirus pandemic amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for a man who suffers from high blood pressure and psoriasis and is susceptible to infections.

Kerkorian’s lawyers have filed court papers to push for his release and are asking Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and the Nevada Supreme Court to step in.

“Now is not the time for zealous, unwavering punishment of people for nonviolent offenses,” said one of Kerkorian’s attorneys, Michael McAvoyAmaya. “Criminal justice is supposed to be about protecting the public. We’re doing nothing to protect the public by keeping these people in prison during a pandemic.”

The Nevada Sentencing Commission, headed up by Justice James Hardesty, has scheduled a meeting for Monday. One topic will be “Preventing the Spread of Communicable Diseases in the Criminal Justice System.”

Officials with the governor and attorney general’s offices declined to comment, citing the pending litigation in Kerkorian’s case.

‘Powder keg’

In a petition filed Friday, lawyers for Kerkorian, whose uncle Kirk Kerkorian is considered one of the architects of modern Las Vegas, wrote that releasing him and others susceptible to COVID-19 could help mitigate the spread of the virus throughout the state.

Kerkorian, who had no prior criminal history, admitted to neglecting animals at his residence in Pahrump after his wife died in 2018. He is eligible for parole in October.

“Every day that the Governor of Nevada delays in exercising his emergency duties and powers in accordance with the public policy of Nevada to ensure that Nevada’s prisons do not become an epidemiological pump for spreading COVID-19 through Nevada’s prisons and the general public, the more likely (Kerkorian’s) one year sentence will become a death sentence,” McAvoyAmaya and attorney Michael Horvath wrote in the 87-page petition.

“Nevada’s prisons are a powder keg waiting to explode with COVID-19 cases that could compromise and overwhelm our criminal justice and healthcare systems,” the attorneys wrote.

As of Monday, at least three state prison employees had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Nevada Department of Corrections spokesman Scott Kelley did not answer or return phone calls seeking comment for this story. In reply to an email, Kelley asked for specific questions, but he did not respond to any questions subsequently emailed to him.

News organizations around the globe have reported on prison riots sparked by the outbreak. Riots in Iran and Colombia led to dozens of deaths.

Appeal to governors

On Monday, the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute at New York University Law School, delivered a letter to each governor in the country, asking them to release as many prisoners as possible during the pandemic.

“Cramped in close quarters, our nation’s correctional facilities are essentially petri dishes for disease transmission,” the letter said. “These conditions present grave dangers to both incarcerated people and the public servants who work in the facilities as guards, counselors, and medical staff.”

Late last month Columbia Legal Services, a civil legal aid law firm, filed a petition asking Washington state’s high court to facilitate the release of older, vulnerable inmates.

“Prisons present the potential for a catastrophic outcome should COVID-19 enter these facilities,” the petition said.

McAvoyAmaya and Horvath are asking Nevada officials to consider releasing prisoners expected to be released in the next 18 months, those older than 50 and those who are pregnant or suffer from pre-existing conditions, such as chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The attorneys argue that, should the virus spread through the prison system, it could lead to staffing shortages and overburden the hospital system.

“Our hope is that obviously it benefits our client, but hopefully it also benefits many others,” Horvath said. “We can’t forget that inmates are people, too. Out here we’re able to follow the governor’s orders, but in jail they can’t.”

McAvoyAmaya said he believes the virus will inevitably strike prisoners directly.

“If it’s not already there, it’s going to be there soon. There’s no way to get around it,” he said. “Now’s not the time for ruthless punishment. Now is the time for compassion. Now is the time for reasoned thinking and doing what’s best for everyone.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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