Nevada prisons replacing shotguns with pepper spray, batons

CARSON CITY — Pepper spray, batons and rubber bullets are replacing shotguns and birdshot to quell disturbances at Nevada prisons in the wake of a series of shootings that left one inmate dead and several others injured.

E.K. McDaniel, Nevada Corrections Department interim director, told the state Board of Prison Commissioners on Thursday that his department is implementing most of the recommendations on use of force outlined in a report in the fall by the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

That review was ordered following the fatal shooting of an inmate in November 2014 at High Desert Prison outside Las Vegas. Another inmate was injured. Other inmates were wounded in shootings at other prisons in the weeks and months afterward.

The report recommended Nevada hire more prison officers, increase training, equip them with pepper spray and batons, and discontinue use of shotguns.

“Every officer with contact with prisoners is carrying pepper spray,” said McDaniel, who called the move a “great success.”

But McDaniel said he’s hesitate to abolish use of shotguns altogether, even though Nevada is one of the few states that uses shotguns inside penitentiaries.

“Firing of the 7.5 shot has never been routine for our department,” McDaniel told the board headed by Gov. Brian Sandoval. Other board members are Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske.

“We really believe as we implement these other things … that it will only be used as a last resort where there are no other methods that we can use,” McDaniel said.

The association’s review found 208 shooting incidents at Nevada prisons over a recent three-year period. Of those, two-thirds involved blanks or “poppers.”

Prison officers began using rubber bullets in July, and through the end of last year fired them eight times. “Live” ammunition was used 11 times in 2015.

The department is updating policies to specify what types of force should be used in different scenarios and mandating an executive review whenever a firearm is discharged except when blank rounds are used.

Beginning next month, all staff will receive 40 hours of training annually, up from the current 24 hours, McDaniel said. Expanded topics include “verbal judo” to de-escalate conflicts; inter-personal communication; use of chemical agents; ethics; inmate cultural diversity and lifestyles; and health and wellness.

Low staffing was blamed in part for use of force to keep order and inmates in check. Lawmakers last year approved hiring 100 correctional officers to address a chronic problem of filling positions when an officer calls in sick or is on vacation.

McDaniel said the first 22 officers have been hired, trained and are on the job. Another 23 will be attending the first available training academy and the remaining 55 will be hired in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb

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