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Nevada’s prison medical staff grapple with coronavirus outbreak

Updated April 24, 2020 - 9:22 pm

A coronavirus outbreak behind prison walls could overwhelm the Nevada Department of Corrections, documents analyzed by the Las Vegas Review-Journal show.

Attorneys for the prison system this week inadvertently allowed redacted information in a court filing that appears to show an emerging troubled response to the pandemic.

“The biggest thing going on right now is total chaos in our dental department,” Bob Faulkner, a director of nursing services at High Desert State Prison, said during an April 15 prison system medical department meeting. “Some changes were made in personnel, and we were given absolutely no notice about this.”

The meeting began with Theresa Wickham, the prison system’s chief of nursing services, explaining how medical staff was grappling with the potential of virus-infected inmates.

Most of the minutes from the meeting were improperly redacted from a response to a petition to release certain prisoners to stave off the spread of COVID-19. But a technical glitch in the filing allowed the minutes to be viewed for several days before they were taken down.

Three days after Chief Deputy Attorney General Randall Gilmer and Senior Deputy Attorney General Frank Toddre II included the redaction error, they filed court briefs asking for the information to be removed from the Nevada Supreme Court website.

Concerns for youth offenders

In one exchange during the meeting, prison staff expressed concern about how youth offenders were housed among adult inmates.

“I know that an issue at Lovelock (Correctional Center Facility) is that you have very little infirmary space because the infirmary is the overflow for the youth offenders, so, the minute you get youth in there, your infirmary is off limits to adult inmates, so, and then what do you do?” Wickham said.

The overcrowding could mean that there would be no room to quarantine inmates who tested positive for coronavirus, Wickham indicated.

“They are back there at the very back of the hallway with curtains across the hallway, and they are stuck down there,” Rusty Donnelly, Lovelock’s director of nursing, said. “That is what we are doing, we don’t have a choice!”

Wickham suggested that a curtain was not sufficient to separate adults from the youth.

“That is the big issue at Lovelock, if the youth offenders have to be completely separated sight and sound and so they can put up the curtain and that blocks any sight,” she said. “But we’ve had issues with adult inmates that are calling out terrible things.”

In the same meeting, Wickham also talked about discussions she had with Gov. Steve Sisolak, who had ordered a statewide shutdown in response to the pandemic about a month earlier, about the spread of hepatitis C. At least 20 percent of the roughly 13,000 inmates across the prison system tested positive for the blood-borne disease.

“He had asked, ‘Are we doing enough?’” Wickham said, referring to Sisolak. “And I said, ‘No.’ And he asked, ‘What can we do?’ and I said, ‘Give me 200 million dollars, and we can cure a lot of people.’”

That does not appear to account for how much money the prison system would need to handle an outbreak of coronavirus. Officials with the governor’s office have declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Petitions filed with the state’s high court earlier this month called for certain prisoners to be released to stave off the spread of COVID-19 behind prison walls, which could lead to overwhelming hospitals across the state.

Asked about the disclosed meeting minutes, Michael Horvath, an attorney for inmate Gregory Kerkorian, a 74-year-old serving a one- to four-year sentence, said he had “grave concern for the health and safety of the inmates.”

Horvath and fellow attorney Michael McAvoyAmaya said Friday that they were preparing a response to the prison system’s argument that Kerkorian was safe from the virus.

“Kerkorian is housed by himself,” prison lawyers wrote this week. “The cell has its own toilet and sink. His cell is sanitary. These undisputed facts establish Kerkorian’s ability to practice social distancing and debunk his general assertion that he is more at risk because of the need to use communal restrooms in unsanitary condition.”

McAvoyAmaya said he was concerned that the hepatitis C response could mean trouble stemming coronavirus in the prisons.

“That’s potentially thousands of people who are at risk from COVID-19 because they have an underlying condition,” he said. “I don’t think enough is being done.”

The lawyers said that corrections officers had entered Kerkorian’s cell this month without masks or gloves.

As of Friday, eight prison employees had tested positive for the virus, including one at Southern Desert Correctional Center, where Kerkorian is held, according to spokesman Scott Kelley. Prison officials have said that no inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, but Kelley would not disclose how many prisoners had been tested.

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

Call for inmate release

On the heels of Kerkorian’s petition for early freedom, lawyers from Washoe and Clark counties asked justices to order Sisolak and prison officials to release inmates who fall under one of three categories: those who have been granted parole yet remain locked up; inmates with a high risk of serious harm from COVID-19 and expected to be released within 18 months; and any nonviolent offenders serving sentences set to expire in the next three years if they provide an approved parole plan.

In the prison’s April 15 medical staff meeting, pharmacist Linda Fox discussed a “backup plan” in the case that “they quarantined my entire staff.”

“We cannot have no pharmacy staff, so what I did is I cut my staff in half, and I have an A team and a B team where they have no physical contact with each other,” Fox said.

She noted that she had to change everyone’s shifts and that it might continue into May.

“But so far it is working. … We are not having any trouble getting our work done, and it seems to be working remarkably well,” Fox said. “I feel good about having a plan, like if something goes bad, that we won’t be out of business. Everyone is getting along very well, so I am pleased.”

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

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