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Inmates say 3rd worker tests positive for COVID-19 at Las Vegas prison

Updated April 23, 2020 - 6:03 pm

Women incarcerated at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center have reported that a third staff member at the prison has tested positive for the coronavirus, causing fear among inmates who say the prison isn’t taking enough precautions to protect them.

“We are stuck right on top of each other 24/7,” said Michelle Shepard, one of four inmates who spoke to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about conditions inside the prison. “It’s horrible. There’s no social distancing in here at all.”

The inmates said in phone interviews that a memorandum posted in the prison on Wednesday announces a “culinary” staff member had become the third positive case of coronavirus among the facility’s employees.

The most recent data, posted 8:30 a.m. Thursday to the Department of Health and Human Services’ website, only showed two cases at the women’s prison in the northeast Las Vegas Valley. In an emailed statement sent Thursday, Department of Corrections spokesman Scott Kelley did not confirm a third case, and referred to the state data.

The only other facility with two or more cases as of Thursday is High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, about 45 miles north of Las Vegas, according to the state data.

The staff member at the women’s prison was self-isolating, and eight inmates who had been in close contact with that staff member were tested, according to the memo, which an inmate read to a Review-Journal reporter. The results of those tests were negative, but the eight inmates and their cellmates were quarantined in a separate unit, the memo said.

Kelley said in an email Thursday that “at this time,” the department is not saying how many tests have been administered.

“NDOC has COVID-19 tests at each institution within the medical facilities,” he said. “NDOC has a sufficient amount of test kits at the moment to properly protect our NDOC community. If more are needed, we will use all means possible to obtain more.”

Kelley said inmates are being tested if they show “1 of 3 cardinal symptoms” of the virus, report feeling ill or have come in contact with someone who has tested positive.

He declined to say if any inmates had been placed in a separate unit for quarantine purposes, writing that “NDOC won’t report on the movement of offenders in specific units at our facilities for operational security reasons.”

Face mask policy

The women inside Florence McClure said the majority of guards only started wearing masks this week and that it’s still inconsistent from guard-to-guard. Kelley said that as of Monday, guards are required to wear masks if they come within 6 feet of inmates.

That policy came into effect six days after John Witherow, president of the NV CURE prisoner advocacy organization, emailed a letter to Department of Corrections Director Charles Daniels asking if guards were required to wear masks.

Monika Boutin, who’s also incarcerated at the prison, said Thursday she was frustrated with “the lack of the smallest amount of effort on the part of the staff here.”

“It’s not only infuriating but it makes me feel sad for their families,” the 30-year-old said about guards not consistently wearing masks. “Don’t you care about yourself either?”

Boutin said staff members took the temperatures of all the inmates for the first time on Thursday morning. She said that other women aren’t feeling well and that her temperature reached 99.8 degrees on Thursday.

Tina Megason, Boutin’s mother and a nurse in Carson City, also questioned why the guards weren’t consistently wearing masks sooner. Megason, who’s from Texas and who noted she’s used to “raising hell” with prison administrators, said she’s living “in absolute terror” that her daughter will get sick.

Boutin has asthma and was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease after years of drug use, Megason said. Her daughter’s “poor choices” shouldn’t equate to a death sentence, she said.

“I know that if my daughter contracts this virus, there’s a good chance that she could lose her life,” Megason said Thursday, her voice cracking with emotion.

Samantha Lee, a 53-year-old inmate at the facility, said Wednesday that the women still eat meals together about 200 at a time.

“People are scared to cough, people are scared to sneeze because they feel like they’re going to get shunned,” she said.

The inmates said they have to come within 6 feet of guards multiple times a day, including when they get food in the cafeteria, get laundry, pick up mail or ask for paperwork to be signed. When asked why guards aren’t being required to wear masks at all times, Kelley said, “Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak has not mandated all Nevadans wear face masks at all times.”

While inmates at the county level in the Clark County Detention Center are required to wear masks outside their cells, the women at Florence McClure said they aren’t allowed to wear or make masks. Kelley said inmates are allowed to wear masks if ordered to do so by medical personnel and the warden approves it.

Kelley wrote in the emailed statement that inmates can’t wear masks for safety and security reasons, including employees needing to “identify offenders by face at all times,” increased chances of escape if inmates blend in with custodial staff who are wearing masks, and inmates needing “to be identified immediately” if they assault a staff member.

‘This is her health, this is different’

When the Department of Corrections announced March 26 that the first employee had tested positive at the High Desert facility, the agency said one of the procedures to contain the virus was keeping inmates “isolated in their cells” at the Indian Springs prison.

Kelley said Thursday that the Florence McClure facility was isolating inmates “in some sections as a precautionary measure,” but it did not appear there was a facility-wide lockdown or modified lockdown.

“NDOC facilities are placed on lockdown whenever there is a serious incident, staff shortage, or event (escape, hostage, riot, etc) that requires staff to concentrate on the incident or event,” Kelley said in the emailed statement. “(Florence McClure) has not experienced a recent serious incident, staff shortage, or event.”

Valentina Knight, a 30-year-old inmate, said she’s seven months’ pregnant and concerned for herself and the older women in the prison. She also reported guards who weren’t wearing masks until this week.

“I’m hoping that at least if they don’t care about me, at least they would protect my unborn child,” Knight said.

Megason said she wants the Department of Corrections to protect her daughter and the other inmates, but she worried it’s now too late if three staff members have tested positive.

“This is her health, this is different,” she said. “This has nothing to do with her sentencing and why she’s there. This has to do with them living up to their freaking responsibilities to take care of these people.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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