CARSON CITY — The ouster of the Nevada Department of Corrections director signals changes are coming to the beleaguered agency at the insistence of Gov. Brian Sandoval.
The Republican governor on Sept. 14 abruptly called for the resignation of Greg Cox, saying a “change in leadership” was necessary to move the department forward.
Sandoval did not hide his annoyance when he found out, the day before it was promised, that a report from an outside agency on use of force at state prisons would be late and unavailable for discussion at the Sept. 15 meeting of the Board of Prison Commissioners.
That report, being conducted by the Association of State Correctional Administrators, was commissioned earlier this year after a string of incidents at Nevada prisons, beginning in November when officers at High Desert State Prison outside Las Vegas shot and killed one inmate and wounded another. Lawyers say both were handcuffed behind their backs.
The death was not disclosed until four months later when the Clark County coroner ruled it a homicide.
The monthslong delay in reporting the fatal shooting took even the governor by surprise. He said he was told of an “incident” at the prison when it happened in November but was unaware that inmate Carlos Manuel Perez, 28, was killed by a guard until the coroner ruled on the cause of death in March. The other inmate, Andrew Arevalo, 25, was shot in the face and survived.
Two lawsuits have since been filed. Perez’s family filed a wrongful death and civil rights action accusing prison officials of creating a “gladiator style” scenario leading to the shooting. Arevalo’s lawsuit accuses prison officials of deliberate indifference and use of excessive force.
The department has been timelier in reporting subsequent prison incidents.
Cox took the brunt of Sandoval’s wrath. And while the second-term governor cited the tardy report as one reason for Cox’s departure, he indicated it wasn’t the only one.
“There were many different reasons with regard to former director Cox’s resignation, but I do believe that it was the right thing for the department to begin in a different direction,” Sandoval said.
New direction sought
What direction he has in mind remains to be seen, but Sandoval gave hints on what he’ll be looking for during a nationwide search for a permanent replacement and intimated he wants more responsiveness and accountability from the department.
He said he will look for someone with experience in corrections who is knowledgeable with best practices, is familiar with policies and procedures used in other states and someone who “relates well with staff.”
“Those would be the major pieces for me,” Sandoval said.
Gene Columbus, a 20-year correctional officer and president of the Nevada Corrections Association, welcomed the governor’s action.
“It’s a positive step in that state government has recognized there’s a problem,” he said.
But Columbus also is taking a wait-and-see stance. He wants more than lip service to problems that he and others say have plagued the agency for years — poor training, low morale and high turnover.
“Enough of the smoke and mirrors,” he said. “Let’s get serious. Get leadership that takes a proactive role in the things that matter.
“We want change for the good.”
New regulations postponed
At last week’s prison commission meeting, Sandoval appeared to agree.
He postponed adoption of Corrections Department regulations requested by the agency until the next meeting of the board in December after one correctional officer during public comment complained staff was not given ample opportunity to weigh in on the changes.
One regulation, AR339, is an employee code of ethics and conduct. New proposed language would insert the word “loyalty” into expected employee conduct:
“All Department employees are responsible, at all times, to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, with honor, integrity, impartiality, and loyalty whether on or off duty, to obey and support the letter and spirit of the law, and to always exercise appropriate self-discipline in the use of the power and authority entrusted to them.”
There is no definition of what constitutes loyalty, and potential disciplinary actions for violations run from verbal counseling to suspension to dismissal.
“I’m assuming that they’re trying to say that they want the staff to be loyal to the department — administrators, supervisors — and not to question them,” said Kevin Ranft, a former correctional officer who now is a union representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 4041.
Ranft said he would like to see the employee code include a “positive reinforcement program that provides tools to the officers to be successful.”
“Until you get an administration and leadership that actually takes a proactive role and is serious about drugs in prison and training for staff, you can put in a thousand policies and it’s not going to change anything,” Columbus said.
He said dialogue with line staff would go a long way to improve operations.
“You have to have open, honest, constructive communication and that’s what is lacking in the department right now,” Columbus said.
“I’m glad to see what happened here,” he added. “Hopefully it’s the tip of the iceburg.”
Contact Sandra Chereb at email@example.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb