ACLU report critical of Nevada state prisons

LAS VEGAS - Over-crowding and understaffing are preventing Nevada prisons from meeting the basic human needs of those they incarcerate, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

"We're concerned about whether or not they're safe, whether or not they're sanitary," said Maggie McLetchie, legal director for the ACLU of Nevada. "It's about bare minimums."

The 68-page report was authored by Rebecca Paddock, the group's prisoner rights fellow.

Paddock, who recently joined the Clark County public defender's office, concluded that the state needs to reduce its prison population by reclassifying some felonies and by expanding community-based treatment programs. She also concluded that the Nevada Department of Corrections needs external oversight, and called for legislation to prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners.

"While Nevada is, of course, not required to provide inmates with a luxurious standard of living, the state has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that basic needs such as proper sanitation, nutrition, exercise, medical, dental, and mental health care are met," according to the report. "Not doing so violates basic standards of decency and human rights norms and in the long run, will only cost Nevada even more money it can't afford."

In a statement, the department disputed the report's conclusions.

"It appears much of the data the ACLU relies on is skewed and anecdotal which presents a distorted view of the NDOC," according to the statement. "The NDOC is not committing human rights violations and it is offensive to suggest otherwise. The NDOC is continually working to provide constitutional care to over 12,000 inmates on a daily basis."

Paddock said she analyzed all the information she could, but the Department of Corrections resisted requests for records. Her report notes that the obstacles the ACLU faced in obtaining documents from the department raise "grave questions about the transparency of NDOC."

The report does include stories told by prisoners, but Paddock said some were so similar that they gained credibility. For instance, multiples inmates at multiple prisons reported seeing a "not for human consumption" label on meat served to prisoners.

"I was going all over Nevada, and inmates were saying the same thing," Paddock said.

That anecdote led to the report's title, "Not Fit For Human Consumption or Habitation: Nevada's Prisons in Crisis."

According to the report, the most recent audits of Nevada prisons by the Bureau of Health Care and Quality Compliance, which has no authority over the prisons, found that many of the facilities were violating the health code by failing to provide training to the culinary staff.

At the Southern Desert Correctional Center, the bureau "confirmed an inmate's complaint that inmates were served food that had been left in the food delivery area where crows were allowed to open the packages and eat the food."

McLetchie said the ACLU cannot file lawsuits over every illegal practice in Nevada prisons, so it undertook the project as a way to educate the public and promote legislative change.

"We've never done a report like this before," McLetchie said. "It's groundbreaking for us."

The ACLU of Nevada filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in 2008 after the organization's doctor, William Noel, met with and studied the records of 35 inmates at Ely State Prison.

He called the care for inmates "the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering" he had encountered in the medical profession.

The lawsuit contended that inmates such as former Coasters manager Patrick Cavanaugh, who died in 2006, suffer excruciating pain but are denied medications and surgeries by prison medical staff.

Noel said Cavanaugh was left to die a "slow, painful death" in which there was the "unmistakable smell of putrefying flesh."

Cavanaugh, 60, was an insulin-dependent diabetic who was not given medication in the last three years of his life and ended up with gangrene in his limbs.

Prison medical officials, however, contended Cavanaugh refused medications despite repeated attempts to reason with him.

The ACLU of Nevada received $325,000 in legal fees when the case settled last year.

According to the statement released Friday by the Department of Corrections, the decision of ACLU lawyers to settle the case showed that "they had doubts as to the merits of the claims which we considered to be wildly inaccurate."

But McLetchie contends the ACLU settled the lawsuit "because it was in the best interests of everyone, especially the inmates at Ely State Prison, to focus resources on improving medical conditions at the prison rather than on protracted and costly litigation."

She said the ACLU never sought money damages in the case, and the lawsuit succeeded in placing an independent monitor at the prison to ensure that medical services are provided in a constitutional way.

The prison report does not mention Cavanaugh by name, but does discuss a separate case filed by his family and notes that the state recently settled that lawsuit for $450,000.

Paddock said she did not know what she would find when she began researching Nevada's prisons and was shocked to discover problems "at a basic-needs level."

She said she sympathizes with the Department of Corrections and realizes it suffers from inadequate funding.

"It really wasn't necessarily my primary purpose to point fingers," she said.


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