High Desert State Prison near Indian Springs remains under a critical glare following last year’s fatal shooting of a brawling inmate by a rookie corrections officer.
The incident has revealed what veteran corrections officers I’ve interviewed call a dangerous shortage of experienced personnel and a lack of the proper tools to perform the difficult duty.
Officers at nearby Southern Desert Correctional Center can relate to the daily challenges of watching over hundreds of inmates with insufficient staffing and equipment. They say they regularly find themselves in the same predicament. Veterans I spoke with recently said the two prisons are separated by fences but share “exactly the same environment, administration and supervision.”
While High Desert officers working in cell blocks are forced to watch over inmates with only a shotgun as a deterrent, Southern Desert officers are outfitted with pepper spray as their sole regular backup tool. Veteran officers recently interviewed on the condition of anonymity say chronic staffing shortages and a lack of training are a recipe for tragedy.
Although staffing minimums are legislatively mandated, one experienced officer explained: “We’ve been under those minimum staffing numbers on a regular basis. … As a result at Southern Desert we probably have, on day shift and swing shift, a majority of trainees within one to three years maximum, experience-wise. You’ve got somebody with two or three years (of experience) leading somebody who’s brand new.”
It’s common for a single Southern Desert officer to be in charge of watching more than 200 inmates, one veteran said.
“It’s kind of hard for one officer to ensure the safety of over 200 inmates,” one longtime officer said, explaining that during “tier time,” inmates are free to roam the halls, play cards, watch television in a common area and socialize out of sight of the roving officer.
“While he’s down in one wing checking on inmates, doing his job, making sure everything is fine, the other two areas are completely unmonitored,” one officer said. “So, whatever’s happening in there, he doesn’t know what’s going on. It shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t have one officer by himself down amongst all the inmates.”
Although High Desert is known as the more tightly secured and supervised prison, Southern Desert receives the same inmates. They’ve just been “write-up free for a certain amount of time,” an officer explained.
Corrections officers say they know being identified will lead to possible suspension and termination. But they continue to speak up in hopes of improving unprofessional working conditions in an already dangerous environment.
They’re obviously frustrated. They describe a vicious cycle of minimal training, poor pay, understaffing inferior equipment. Filling out a recruiting poster truthfully can’t be easy.
“The salary is a big sticking factor, but a lot of our officers come to the Department of Corrections because they want to gain experience,” a veteran officer said. “It’s an entry level-type law enforcement position. They have aspirations in other areas.”
“Training is definitely a problem,” one officer said. “I hate to admit it, but it’s kind of a joke.”
Trainees get to the job and find a rude awakening.
“They say, ‘Wow, I thought I was coming to a career, and I’m really just here at a job where nobody cares about me and my safety isn’t valued at all,” a Southern Desert officer said. “They’re basically handed the keys and a radio and never seen again.”
Repeated attempts to interview Department of Corrections Director Greg Cox on any of the many allegations raised by current and former corrections officers have been unsuccessful. Stating that pending litigation and investigation prevent them from discussing the issues, a department public information officer declined further comment.
Department policy and pending litigation aside, silence from the top does nothing to improve the safety of the officers and the inmates.
If those officers are right, Nevada’s prisons won’t be out of the harsh spotlight for long.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter: @jlnevadasmith