State’s silence on shooting of handcuffed prison inmates called deeply troubling

CARSON CITY — An investigative report into the shooting death of a High Desert State Prison inmate four months ago was delivered Thursday to the state attorney general’s office.

Patty Cafferata, spokeswoman for Attorney General Adam Laxalt, said the report from Nevada Division of Investigation will be reviewed to determine whether any charges will be filed concerning the death of Carlos Manuel Perez at the hands of a guard.

The report follows autopsy findings released Wednesday by the Clark County coroner’s office that revealed Perez, 28, died in November of gunshot wounds to the head, chest, neck and arm while in custody at High Desert State Prison. It was the first word that he had been shot by a correctional officer.

Brian Connett, deputy director with the Nevada Department of Corrections, defended the agency’s decision to withhold details of the inmate’s death until the investigation was completed.

“All of our normal notifications were made when we have an inmate death in custody,” Connett said Thursday. “Because of this incident, we brought in outside agencies,” he said, adding that investigators had waited for results from the coroner’s office.

“I don’t know if this was in any way hidden from anybody. Everybody who needed that notification was certainly involved in this,” he said. “We don’t want to negatively impact the investigation.”

But the delay in reporting the circumstances of the death of one inmate and wounding of another has raised questions about the agency’s lack of transparency and public accountability.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada on Thursday called the four-month silence by state prison officials unprecedented and deeply troubling.

“This is definitely a first,” said Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU.

“I think it’s safe to say in this instance there is absolutely a public interest and there is no way they can say it’s something the public shouldn’t know about,” said Amy Rose, ACLU legal director in Las Vegas. “This presents a significant problem that the Nevada Department of Corrections needs to address immediately.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval said Thursday he has not yet spoken with Department of Corrections Director Greg Cox after learning Wednesday that Carlos Manuel Perez Jr. was killed by a guard.

Sandoval, speaking to the Review-Journal after a ceremony honoring veterans at the state Capitol, said he has faith in the investigation.

Perez, 28, was shot Nov. 12 during what is described as a scuffle. Another inmate, Andrew Arevalo, was shot in the face.

Arevalo’s attorney, Alexis Plunkett, said both inmates were handcuffed behind their backs when the shooting happened.

Connett could neither confirm nor deny the statement.

The Department of Corrections in November announced that Perez had died but said nothing about the circumstances.

Perez’s family said they learned he had been shot only when they saw the bullet wounds at the morgue three days later.

Sandoval said he was notified in November only that there had been an “incident” at the prison near Indian Springs. He learned of the death only this week.

“I knew there was an incident that involved inmates, but that is all, that it was under investigation,” the governor said. “It was handled, by my understanding, under the same policies and procedures that every incident is handled.”

Department policies on the use of force by correctional officers say deadly force should be used as a “last resort” to protect a person from “imminent death or serious bodily injury,” protect state property, prevent escapes or capture escapees.

When necessary, force “will be limited to the minimum degree necessary to resolve the situation.”

Plunkett said that no corrections officers or other inmates were at risk when the fight happened.

In a statement late Wednesday, the department said the correctional officer who shot the inmates was placed on leave with two others pending the outcome of a Nevada Division of Investigations probe.

Gene Columbus, president of the Nevada Corrections Association, said the incident “certainly looks ugly when you have restrained inmates being shot” but said it points to bigger problems within state prison administration.

“You have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “You have to start from the top and work down.”

He complained of a top-heavy bureaucracy and lack of support for the “basic nuts-and-bolts such as training, operations and the security of prisons.”

“Those are the kinds of things you have to look at,” Columbus said.

Like all state agencies, Nevada prison budgets were cut during the recession. Sandoval’s proposed budget includes $7.5 million to add 100 correctional officers.

“We’re at minimum staffing,” Cox told lawmakers during a pre-session budget hearing in January.

“I really think and believe we’re asking for something we’ve desperately needed for years,” he said, adding “It’s a tough job, folks.”

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

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