CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval on Wednesday picked a veteran corrections administrator from out of state to take the helm of Nevada’s beleagured prison system.
The appointment of James Dzurenda, who has nearly three decades of corrections experience in Connecticut and New York, comes six months after Sandoval asked for the resignation of former Corrections Department Director Greg Cox.
Sandoval said Dzurenda, 49, will bring “a necessary fresh perspective” to the department, which has been plagued by prison conflicts involving use of force, high staff turnover and low morale. The director is paid about $129,000 annually.
“A strong corrections system focused on reducing recidivism, inmate rehabilitation and humane treatment of our incarcerated populations helps ensure safety, security and well-being of our greater communities,” Sandoval said in a statement.
Gene Columbus, president of the Nevada Corrections Association, welcomed the governor’s announcement. Columbus, a 20-year correctional officer, has been critical of prison administration, saying it has ignored problems among the rank-and-file, including poor training.
“The governor had said that he wanted a new direction for the department, and correctional employees supported him in doing that,” Columbus said. “We look forward to meeting and to working with Director Dzurenda.”
Dzurenda began his career as a correctional officer in Connecticut, where he worked his way up to administrative positions including warden, district administrator and commissioner. As commissioner, he managed operations at 18 facilities with 19,000 inmates, 7,000 staff members and oversaw a budget of more than $350 million in state funding.
His most recent job was as first deputy commissioner in New York City. Dzurenda managed operations at nine jail facilities that included 14,000 staff and 9,000 inmates.
E.K. McDaniel, a 20-year agency veteran, has been serving as interim director while a search was conducted for a permanent director. Sandoval thanked McDaniel “for his willingness to step up during this time of transition.”
“His leadership helped ensure the department communicated in a more clear and meaningful way and he was a tireless advocate for a significant infusion of correctional officers into our system,” Sandoval said.
Cox’s resignation last September followed several shootings at state prisons, including the November 2014 killing of inmate Carlos Perez at High Desert State Prison near Las Vegas. Another inmate, Andrew Arevalo, was wounded in that incident.
Although prison officials reported the death of Perez at the time, the fact he was shot by correctional officers wasn’t made public until four months later when the Clark County coroner ruled the death a homicide.
Lawyers for the Perez family and Arevalo said both inmates were handcuffed behind their backs when the shooting happened. Two lawsuits are pending.
Other shooting conflicts followed, although none was fatal.
Seven inmates were injured in August at Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City when a fight broke out during dinner and guards opened fire with rubber pellets. Last July, three inmates suffered minor injuries when guards fired rounds to break up a fight at Lovelock Correctional Center. One inmate at Ely State Prison was taken to a hospital in Las Vegas in April after he was shot by a guard during a fight. Eight other inmates were injured.
An outside review of the department’s use of force cited low staffing ratios and recommended the department phase out using bird shot to control inmates in favor of less lethal methods like pepper spray and batons.
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