Updated November 7, 2023 - 10:09 am
Two recent lawsuits filed against the Nevada Department of Corrections allege a pattern of guards allowing prisoners to be attacked by incarcerated gang members at High Desert State Prison.
The lawsuits paint a picture of a penitentiary where corrections officers acted at the whim of gang members, helping smuggle contraband behind bars and trading favors with inmates to discipline other prisoners.
“I think it’s been out of control for a couple of years,” said attorney Lisa Rasmussen, who filed the complaints.
The latest lawsuit, filed Thursday in District Court, alleges that inmate Miguel Medina was stabbed multiple times in May when corrections officers left his cell door open, and that the guards “did nothing to assist Mr. Medina” while he was being attacked.
Medina had already been stabbed in three prior attacks dating back to 2016, and the lawsuit alleges that a corrections officer shot him in the eye, blinding him, in November 2021.
Rasmussen said she hopes the lawsuits will help address what she described as systemic issues within the Department of Corrections.
“This is far from an isolated incident,” she told the Review-Journal on Monday. “And I hope through these lawsuits to begin a serious conversation with the Department of Corrections about what is going on with regards to inmates.”
Contraband as payment
The lawsuit alleges that prison officers work with gang members known as “shot callers” to trade favors and maintain control of units. Officers allegedly use the shot callers to “discipline” certain inmates, the lawsuit said.
“In exchange, NDOC officers facilitate the smuggling of contraband into the NDOC as payment for activities of the Shot Callers,” Rasmussen wrote in the lawsuit. “Such contraband includes, drugs, weapons, cell phones, cash and other items.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Medina was 17 when he was arrested for killing his girlfriend and was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 for second-degree murder, according to court records.
The lawsuit states that Medina had been previously stabbed in 2016 and 2019 while housed at the Southern Desert Correctional Center. He was moved to High Desert State Prison, near Las Vegas, but was again attacked and stabbed by another inmate in November 2021, according to the lawsuit.
Rasmussen said that while Medina was being attacked, a corrections officer shot at the men with a shotgun, striking Medina in the right eye and blinding him.
“Although NDOC has attempted to blame the loss of Mr. Medina’s eye on the stabbing, Mr. Medina’s doctor was clear that he was not stabbed in the eye, but rather, his eye exploded back into his head,” the lawsuit states.
Rasmussen said it was unclear what type of projectile hit Medina. In 2016, the department vowed to stop using shotguns loaded with birdshot in response to fights after an inmate was killed in a shooting, and several others were injured by birdshot.
Four months after Medina was blinded, the lawsuit alleges that he was again attacked by another prisoner. The complaint accuses Department of Corrections officials of allowing another inmate out of his cell to attack Medina and then failing to intervene as Medina was stabbed repeatedly.
‘Malicious and sadistic’
Rasmussen also is representing inmate Raymond Sharpe in a federal lawsuit that alleges Sharpe was attacked by multiple gang members at High Desert State Prison in October 2020, according to an amended criminal complaint filed in March. The lawsuit claims a corrections officer passed a gang member a shank and then refused to intervene when Sharpe was attacked and stabbed.
“The actions taken against Mr. Sharpe were malicious and sadistic, and the force used against Mr. Sharpe constituted malicious and sadistic force,” the lawsuit states.
Rasmussen said that in recent years she has seen more and more lawsuits from prisoners alleging misconduct from corrections officers, which she said coincided with the tenure of former department director Charles Daniels, who also was named as a defendant in Medina’s and Sharpe’s lawsuits.
In September 2022, prison staff penned a letter to former Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office accusing Daniels of “erratic, hostile, and abusive” behavior. Daniels was asked to resign following a high-profile prison escape last year, and he was replaced by James Dzurenda, who previously held the role from 2016 to 2019.
Dzurenda also is named as a defendant in Medina’s lawsuit.
“I know that Director Dzurenda is trying to make changes since he came back in January,” Rasmussen said. “But there’s just a long way to go.”
Contact Katelyn Newberg at email@example.com or 702-383-0240.