Updated December 9, 2022 - 4:37 pm
Demonstrators chanted slogans calling for change within Nevada’s prison system Friday in front of the Casa Grande Transitional Housing Center.
Members of multiple organizations focusing on social justice and prisoners’ rights gathered at the Russell Road facility for a press conference organized by Return Strong, an organization focused on prison reform. The event was conducted in solidarity with more than 20 Ely State Prison inmates who have been on hunger strike for over a week.
“They need to be treated like human beings, instead of being treated like animals,” said Pamela Browning, who’s with The Uproar, a program within the Return Strong organization. “Even animals are treated better than that.”
The hunger strike, which began Dec. 1, originally included 39 prisoners, according to the Nevada Department of Corrections. As of Friday, 24 prisoners were still participating, with 19 of them having been on strike for nine days.
The striking prisoners have multiple demands, including calls to end solitary confinement, lockdowns, group punishment and alleged violence from staff. The prisoners also want safety concerns such as mold, rodents, heating and air conditioning issues, to be addressed. They also are asking for a group of stakeholders to convene and provide oversight of all Nevada incarceration facilities.
Nina Fernandez, 57, said her son, an inmate at the Ely prison, is participating in the hunger strike. She said that her son pointed out the lack of programs for prisoners and that the food portions given to prisoners were very small.
Fernandez also alleges her son was beaten multiple times by prison staff before the strike, in areas without surveillance cameras. “I never smacked my son myself. What makes you think somebody else should hit my child?” she said.
Fernandez also claims her son has been a victim of retaliation from corrections officers because of his participation in the hunger strike. She said that he was falsely accused of sexually harassing an officer and that his legal mail went missing before getting to his lawyer, among other things.
“Anything that they could do against him they’ve done,” Fernandez said.
Retaliation was something Marcus Kelley, 43, said he experienced when he was part of a hunger strike during his time served in a Michigan prison in 2014. Kelley said that he feels the pain of the striking prisoners.
“They’re sacrificing their bodies so the world can look at what Nevada prisons are doing, and it all falls back on the warden,” Kelley said. “And any elected official that passes any bill that supports what they are doing in the prison system should not win another election.”
Kelley works with Make It Work Nevada, an organization that focuses on organizing women of color to advocate for social and economic issues, and focuses on advocating for prisoners and citizens returning from incarceration.
DOC: Some complaints ‘have merit’
The Department of Corrections responded to the strike in a news release Friday morning that said some of the claims from prisoners “have merit” but also called some prisoners’ claims false.
The department said that the most significant change will be in enforcing “administrative sanctions,” which include taking away privileges and removing prisoners from the general population.
The news release said that going forward, the department will enforce multiple sanctions at once, rather than consecutively. This policy was already in place for removing prisoners from the general population, according to the Department of Corrections.
The Corrections Department also said that understaffing is making it difficult to meet prisoners’ daily requirements. The release also said that food portion sizes are closely monitored by supervisors.
‘Somebody’s gonna have to listen to us’
Asked whether they think the department will meet the striking prisoners’ demands, many demonstrators were optimistic that some action will be taken but that not all demands will be met.
Fernandez said the number of people who came to the event to advocate for the prisoners gave her hope.
“I at least feel that there’s hope that somebody’s gonna have to listen to us,” she said. “There’s got to be so many voices to be heard that somebody might just say, ‘You know what, enough is enough. Let’s do something about the situation.’ Because I’m not the only one out here.”