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ACLU seeks more steps to curb virus spread in Nevada prisons

The American Civil Liberties Union and prison advocates have sent a letter to Nevada agencies associated with the criminal justice system to demand further actions preventing the spread of coronavirus in the state’s prisons and jails, including releasing more inmates.

The letter was sent Thursday evening, spurred by the announced from the Department of Correction that an employee at High Desert State Prison had tested positive for COVID-19, ACLU staff attorney Nikki Levy said Saturday afternoon.

The letter also referenced inmates at the Henderson Detention Center who were being isolated due to the coronavirus, a move Henderson Police Department Chief Thedrick Andres confirmed on Saturday.

“We are happy that they’ve been proactive and we think that they’ve taken some proper steps,” Levy said about law enforcement and the Department of Corrections’ responses to the pandemic.

But without “seriously decreasing” the number of inmates at jails and prisons, the disease won’t be stopped, she said.

“Nothing that’s been done so far is going to be enough,” she said.

Spread into correctional facilities

As of Saturday afternoon, there had only been two cases of Southern Nevada employees of state jails or prisons testing positive for COVID-19 — the employee at High Desert State Prison and a corrections officer employed by the Metropolitan Police Department, who had not been to work after presumably contracting the disease on vacation, Metro said.

Metro also has announced that several inmates at the Clark County Detention Center have been tested for the disease, although as of Saturday afternoon the department had not announced if any had tested positive.

Andres said Saturday that 13 Immigration and Custom Enforcement detainees were isolated in individual cells within a separate unit at the Henderson jail after an ICE agent from Utah transported them to the jail a week ago. The detainees were isolated after the ICE agent started showed symptoms of COVID-19.

ICE has since removed six of the detainees from the jail, but of the seven remaining, one was exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, Andres said. Another unrelated ICE detainee is also isolated because of illness, but it was unclear if it was coronavirus symptoms.

As of Saturday morning, no inmates had tested positive for COVID-19.

Testing is being determined by NaphCare, a private company that handles medical care for the inmates at the detention center, Andres said.

The ACLU letter also claimed that all inmates at High Desert, which houses about 4,000 people, were being “isolated in their cells” because of the employee who tested positive.

Along with the ACLU, the letter was signed by prisoner advocate groups Nevada CURE, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, PLAN Mass Liberation, the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, and the NAACP chapters in Las Vegas and Reno.

The letter was emailed to representatives of 24 agencies, including Metro, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office, the Nevada Supreme Court, the Department of Corrections, the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, the Clark County and Washoe County district attorney offices, and 11 state district courts.

‘They can’t isolate’

Jails and prisons are prime locations for the spread of disease, with many people living in close quarters and sharing bathroom and eating facilities, Levy said. Reducing the number of people arrested and releasing more people to practice social distancing at home will protect prisoners and those in the community from getting sick, she said.

“These people can’t flatten the curve,” she said. “They can’t isolate. They’re kind of stuck where they are.”

The letter asks for officials to consider steps to prevent the spread of the disease in prisons and jails, including:

— Limiting arrests to serious offenses.

— Keeping at-risk people, such as those who are pregnant, have a chronic health condition or a compromised immune system, out of jails if they don’t pose a risk to public safety.

— Releasing those held in jails only because they cannot pay bail.

— Suspending fines and fees that could cause people to be arrested, including monthly payments made to the Nevada Division of Parole and Probation.

— Waiving co-payment inmates pay when receiving medical treatment.

— Providing free phone calls, video calls and emails for inmates while in-person visits are suspended.

The ACLU asked judges to “use their authority” to make sure the disease is slowed. The letter also asked Sisolak to “grant immediate commutations” to inmates whose sentences would end in the next year, for anyone being help on a “technical (crimeless) supervision violation,” and to anyone considered “particularly vulnerable” to COVID-19 whose sentence would end in the next two years.

“There are a lot of stakeholders in the criminal justice system that can take action now,” Levy said.

Metro and the Department of Corrections have previously announced steps being taken to reduce the spread of coronavirus, including screening all inmates who enter the facilities for symptoms of the disease.

At the Clark County Detention Center, those showing signs of illness, as well as inmates who are asymptomatic but may have been exposed to the virus, will be quarantined at the jail and screened over a two-week period by medical staff, according to Metro. Hand sanitizer is not available to the inmates, but Metro has said that inmates “have constant access to anti-bacterial soap and water throughout the jail.” In addition, proper hand-washing instructions have been posted near each sink.

Metro also canceled social visits, inmate programs and inmate property releases at the jail. There were 3,318 people in custody at the Clark County Detention Center as of March 19, according to Metro records.

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said this week that Metro officers have stopped arresting people on traffic bench warrants or child support warrants, and his officers are “utilizing discretion” when it comes to arresting people suspected of misdemeanor crimes, with the exception of DUIs and domestic violence.

The Department of Corrections announced Thursday that surfaces are being cleaned at all facilities with a 100 percent bleach concentration solution.

On March 13, Department of Corrections spokesman Scott Kelley told the Review-Journal that there were 12,872 inmates in the department’s custody, 493 of which were 65 or older.

Levy said the ACLU is tracking the coronavirus pandemic in Nevada, including the situation in jails and prisons. People can submit reports of “civil rights and liberties related incidents” to the organization at intake.aclunv.org.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Blake Apgar contributed to this report.

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