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September 24, 2021

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state government:

Too few prison guards in Nevada? Officials OK study to find out

High Desert State Prison

A prison guard stands watch over a classroom Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, at High Desert State Prison.

Acting on complaints about a lack of correctional officers to guard inmates, the state Prison Board Monday authorized a study on the security and staffing at Nevada prisons.

"We need to get answers," said Gov. Brian Sandoval, chairman of the board, adding that all factors need to be considered.

Greg Cox, director of the state Department of Corrections, said he would contact the National Institute of Corrections to perform the evaluation.

The national ratio is one officer for every 6.4 inmates. Most of the complaints about lack of staffing came from the officers at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, where the ratio is better than the national average at 6.27 inmates for each guard.

At High Desert in Clark County the ratio is one officer for 7.45 offenders; at Florence McClure Women's Prison, also in Clark County, it is one officer for 6.63 inmates and at the prison in Lovelock there is one guard for every 8.26 offenders.

Cox told the board there is no "magic figure" on what the ratio should be. His job is to make it safe for the inmates and the staff. "More staff doesn't mean the prison is safer," he told the board.

There were less serious incidents in the prison system this year than last and fewer behavioral write-ups than in 2011, prison officials said.

But one senior officer with 17 years experience complained there was only one officer in the ward with 60 mentally ill inmates and that guard is responsible for ensuring the safety of doctors, nurses and psychiatrists at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center.

In one housing unit, officers discovered razor blades, inmates making alcohol and syringes for drug use, he said. And there is not enough coverage when officers take annual or sick leave.

One correctional officer was assaulted by a 70-year-old inmate in October. "I'm getting tired of picking up staff off the floor," he told the board.

Another officer from the Southern Desert prison said more training is needed and added there is a high turnover due to the lack of pay as suffered by other state workers whose benefits were reduced in the last Legislature.

Prison officials said the system operates on what the Legislature authorizes — 10 days of sick leave, 10 days of annual leave and two days of training. That doesn't take into account military leave that may take up to 12 weeks.

Officers are assigned to various prisons depending on the layout of the prison and the behavior of inmates.

Cox said he did not think the study would be completed in time to present to the 2013 Legislature. And the study may cost the state money.

On another subject, state Health Officer Stacy Green told the board that all the medical violations in the prison system have been corrected. The prisons are in "complete compliance" with the medical standards, she said.

The board withheld approval of asking the federal government for designating the ancient and abandoned state prison in Carson City a "national historic site."

Former Prison Director Glenn Whorton said the designation will help in raising money to turn the prison into a tourist attraction, an educational center and a training facility.

Prison Board officials all favored backing the designation, but Sandoval said the preservation group should get the feeling of leaders in the Legislature and he wants to know the consequences if the federal designation is approved.

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