Deaths in prisons in Nevada: trying to get answers

From: Nevada Prisoner Voice:


By Mercedes Maharis MA MS MA

I’ve been trying to keep track of Nevada prisoner death statistics since my days as Nevada CURE Director and Spartacus Project Co-Founder, since the turn of this century. Nevada prisoner death has haunted both me and my husband Robert for years because we had never experienced the deaths of young people before – until we fell into prison reform.

During the time that I taught meditation at Jean prison, I began to witness the effects that inadequate medical, dental and mental health care were having on Nevada’s prisoners. Further, the stress that they experienced trying to reintegrate into our free society when they got out was difficult to digest. They had to get clothing, find jobs, find places to live, get money since they came out with $25.00 or nothing at all in John Brown’s case. (Names changed to protect identities of the living.) I had to drive Mr. Brown back to High Desert to get his social security card, driver’s license ID, his wallet and personal items that property officials had not given him upon release.

Nevada parole officials had mistakenly held Mr. Brown after he responded to a parole officer’s card he found on his apartment door, going to the parole office to tell officials that there was a mistake, that he was not on parole. But, a parole officer cuffed him up on the spot and jailed him. He ended up in the Nevada Department of Prisons for about six months due to paperwork that the parole board did not have (more on that here)…

Raul Garcia had only a sandwich in a paper bag when he left a northern Nevada prison fire camp to arrive in Las Vegas arriving in Las Vegas after more than 24 hours starving and exhausted. (More on that here) and try to readjust to their new lives. It was like being jettisoned to another planet for them, especially the one in the Las Vegas, Nevada desert.

All the while, Nevada prisoners were doing their best to keep up with parole and probation demands. They often had to travel long distances by city buses clear across town to hopeless job interviews, or to parole and probation appointments. These stressors would often become the straw that broke the camel’s back for some in their fragile, poverty stricken, unhealthy lives, some that we personally knew and cared for. Who gave 100% as they struggled to make a place for themselves in a society that, in general, did not want to give them another chance. Some came to depend upon us because their families were long gone, or they had no means to help them because they were struggling themselves, or they had disowned them completely.

Think about how terrible it must be to die in prison. Especially for those who must, for months or years, have thoughts of suicide… like Mark Emmons, age 38, who decided to end it all by eating his own food utensils at Ely. He died of intestinal hemmoraging in a Nevada hospital 7/10/2000. If he had had effective mental health care, I think that Mark would still be alive today, as would so many other Nevada prisoners who have died in prison, or soon after their release.

If only Nevada prison commissioners officials would focus on creating jobs for everyone, providing more and better education, skills training programs and rehabilitation in general for prisoners. There would be fewer problems for staff and hope would have a chance to grow, instead of wither, in the minds of prisoners and they would not die of despair. They would also gain the ability to pay for simple medicines, comforts and healthcare they need as they live under such rigorous circumstances.

But, I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. So, death seems to be built into the prison system because of the lack of humane support for Nevada prisoners. I see no bright future for this cold, fatalistic approach of prison policy and administration. Unfortunately, legislators do not stand up firmly or speak out vocally to champion positive change in Nevada prison conditions. They could save lives. And currently, there is no outside oversight for prison operations in Nevada, either.

It must have been terrible without family members present, or a friend in the world by his side, or a chaplain to comfort him as Bobby Ford reportedly died in a pool of his own blood in Jean prison in 9/21/2000. He was 48 years young. (His story here…)

Guy Martens, 51, who, in desperation, wrote for our help from Northern Nevada Correctional Center before he died 4/23/2003 was brutal in his description of prison conditions in that facility. (His letters go here.) And how will we ever forget Michael Parcell, who wrote us about the terrible suffering he endured before his death. How much treatment and comfort did he receive? We may never know. (His letters go here.)

Nevada legislative officials have not yet moved to accredit health care in Nevada prisons to professional standards. It is my true conviction that they could save lives if they would enforce standards in prison health care and use professionally trained, certified personnel to fulfill health care professional standards. The deficiencies that the Nevada State Health Officer cites are disturbing, to say the least.

When I was a past Nevada CURE Director, Nevada Department of Prisons personnel respected our request 4/24/2000 for the Nevada prisoner death list from the first year when Nevada prisons opened for business – 1905. No problem. Today, however, it’s different story. Prisoner death stats are hard to get. They seems to be jealously guarded.

But, with renewed vigor, we have been able to catch up somewhat, receiving inmate death information from the Nevada Department of Corrections Statistics and Planning for 01/01/2000 to 06/04/2007. We presented the death list, flaws intact, to the Nevada Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice meeting 11/19/2008. You’ve probably already seen those death lists in the meeting minutes online.

But, the Nevada Department of Corrections Statistics and Planning personnel have not yet provided the update for prisoner deaths that we requested 22 January 2009 for 20 May 2007 to the present. How can death statistics be 23 months behind? Isn’t this important data that needs special attention? Or, when prisoners die, are they insignificant? Prisoners are people, as the saying in reform circles go. We think that each death is significant given the reports of the trials and tribulations that they go through in Nevada’s unregulated to standards prisons.

22 January 2009… Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC)… Mr. Rex Reed wrote: “We don’t get death certificates very quickly. You might receive a faster answer if you contact the White Pine coroner’s office. As for the death statistics, I don’t have a projected date. We are very busy with other projects. The research staff is down by one-third in this time of tight budgets and the legislative session is starting. I don’t have the staff for the research you want.” Rex Reed, PhD, Administrator, Offender Management Division.

We were able to secure updated Ely State Prison deaths through the White Pine County Sheriff’s office and the White Pine County Coroner’s office. The coroner’s office sends bodies from Ely State Prison to Washoe County for autopsies. There are cordial employees both there and at the Sheriff’s office, too.

23 January 2009… Only one other sheriff in Nevada, however, replied to my death list statistics email requests about prisoner deaths in their counties. Sheriffs Kilgore, DeMeo, Elgan, Furlong, Ingram, Unger and the Elko Sheriff did not reply.

“Ms. Maharis,

“I am unsure what you are asking for and need clarification. If you are asking for records of any NDOC inmates that dies in Lyon County during that time period, you will have to check with NDOC. While we did have a Honor Camp in our county during that time period, we don’t record deaths according to residency; we record them by name so I would have no way of verifying this information without hand searching all coroner reports for that time period. I don’t believe that any inmates at the Honor Camp passed away during that period of time.”

Allen Veil
Lyon County

27 May 2009 the Public Information Office for the Clark County Sheriff answered by email that “If the person you spoke with at NDOC was unable to help you, perhaps you should ask for someone else to speak with. We do not investigate DOC deaths.”

So much for that.

We decided to ask the Carson City County Coroner, hoping against hope, for some luck at getting information there.

A true professional, Ruth Rhines, Senior Deputy Coroner, D-ABMDI, Carson City Sheriff’s Office had an open mind toward our research efforts and decided to show me the ropes and how it works, at last.

4:15…28 May 2009…Coroner Rhines doesn’t keep the records broken out on inmates, but does make penciled notations on NDOC prisoners, even though it’s not her job. It’s a meticulous search.

After signing off on the deaths, Nevada prisoner death data make their way through Vital Statistics, the prison doctor, or the hospital doctors. If prisoners die on death row, she signs off, or the doctor on the scene signs off. If Coroner Rhines goes to a prison and NDOC officials need an autopsy, she signs online and signs an electronic death registry.

So, now, thanks to Coroner Rhines of Carson City County, we finally have a piece of Nevada prisoner death information from May 2007 through 2008, but from only two Nevada institutions – Nevada State Prison and Northern Nevada Correctional Center. She signed off on 15 deaths in 2007 and 23 in 2008. I thought there would be only a few deaths, but, here we have it.

Coroner Rhines reminded me that her list is incomplete. She stated that there are people missing from her list. She is out of the loop, so to speak, if Nevada prisoners in her area are in the hospital more than 12 hours before they die. The hospital or prison doctors sign off in that case.

Coronor Rhines’ 2007 Nevada prisoner 15 death notations in Carson City County include:

Anthony Weber 05/02/07

Richard Adams 05/10/07

Michael Kisling 05/19/07

Warren Staden 06/06/07

Anthony Melchor 06/08/07

Pioquinto Herrera 06/27/07

Virgil Stephens 07/06/07

Virgil Perry 07/29/07

Maynard Humphrey 08/09/07

Mark Miller 08/15/07

Ronald Royston 09/03/07

Michael Wallace 09/03/07

Robert Boswell 11/25/07

Dale Burroughs 12/19/07

Edwin Chartier 12/20/07

Coroner Rhines signed off on these 23 Nevada prisoner deaths in Carson City County in 2008:

James Bey 02/13/08

Jack Leafdale 03/06/08

Lawrence Booker 03/10/08

Luther Hayslip 03/21/08

Armondo Claro-Garcia 03/26/08

Johnnie McGraw 05/18/08

John Stafford 05/27/08

Darren Enlow 05/29/08

Thomas Smith 05/31/08

Hermenegildo Escalara-Barragan 06/02/08

John Dillon 06/04/08

Sylvester Azbill 06/08/08

Bobby Boswell 06/12/08

Felipe Azanon 06/21/08

David St. Pierre 07/07/08

Thomas Zanetti 08/22/08

Pinkus Ralzin 08/29/08

Jose Obregon 09/23/08

William Barney 10/15/08

Donald Tanner 11/04/08

Sever Marga 12/05/08

Raymond Price 12/06/08

Michael Bowman 12/25/08

Coroner Rhines told me that the medical director for the prisons has the complete list of Nevada prisoner deaths in all of the prisons and prison camps.

Why didn’t Mr. Reed direct me to the NDOC medical director’s office forthwith when I asked him about getting the updates on prisoner deaths? Surely he knew that. But, then again, maybe not. Coroner Rhines thought that it didn’t make sense if they were waiting for death certificates from vital statistics. She said that it was very convoluted, that they should have that. Some think that the prison just plain doesn’t want to give out the information. But, why?

Coroner Rhines referred me to Janis de Longchamps, R. N., NDOC Director of Nursing, 775 887 3294. She said that R. N de Longchamps is a quality assurance specialist utilization review coordinator. But, 29 May 2009 R. N. de Longchamps did not reveal Nevada prisoner death list information. She stated that she would have to ask Dr. Bannister about that, to call back on Monday because he wasn’t there.

8:10 AM… Tuesday… 02 June 2009… R. N. de Longchamps stated on the phone, “We have been instructed by the attorney general not to talk to you about anything and to refer all your calls to them.” Then, she hung up. Right in my ear. Ouch! She hung up before I could even ask who to talk to at the Nevada Attorney General’s office.

How is the NDOC be fulfilling its goal “Improve Communication” with staff hanging up on callers? Or, abide by its philosophy: “We will pursue our mission with integrity, act in a professional and ethical manner, be responsible for our actions, and raise the department to the highest standards.”

Read the Department Mission Statement:

Nevada Department of Corrections Mission Statement

8:11 AM… 02 June 2009… We called the Nevada Attorney General’s office forthwith. The operator connected me to Edie Cartwright, Public Information Officer (775) 684 1189 and left a request for the Nevada prisoner death lsts from 20 May 2007 to the present.

8:31 AM… 02 June 2009… We called again asking for the use of excessive force reports for the past five years in NDOC, including shooting incidences. Maybe we could get more insight on that by seeing the reports, especially since we’ve had more reports of shootings lately. Maybe we would learn something about the disturbance that Director Skolnik mentioned at the 14 April 2009 meeting of the Nevada State Board of Prison Commissioners.

8:46 AM… 02 June 2009… Edie Cartwright called back. She said that the attorney general doesn’t have those statistics and started to give me the NDOC telephone number. Interrupting, I read the quote from Janis de Longchamps, R. N., NDOC Director of Nursing, which caused her to pause. She said to let her give a call back.

8:54 AM… 02 June 2009… still wondering about who was dying at Indian Springs Correctional Center and High Desert State Prison in southern Nevada, we called the Clark County Coroner’s office. Inez Cohen, open and hospitable on the phone, said that her office only gets trauma related deaths, accidents, suicides. There is no separate category for the incarcerated who suffer these fates in their database for Clark County, that includes Las Vegas, Nevada.

She would have to research on a case to case basis to discover whether those in their data were prisoners. But her office documented over 10,000 deaths in 2007 and 11,000 deaths in 2008. Going through that data was simply not possible now because they are so busy. I suggested that we ask Derek Dubasik, Departmental Administrative Services Administrator about adding a category for the incarcerated. I left a message for him, then called again about 8: 45 AM 11 June 2009, but he was going to a meeting and couldn’t talk.

Ms. Cohen, was kind enough, however, to refer us to Nevada Vital Statistics in Carson City and in Las Vegas. After I told her that I had been trying to get the info from NDOC, she said, “The prison just doesn’t want to give it to you.”

We then called the Nevada Vital Statistics Office in Las Vegas. Chris said, “We don’t keep stats like that. I’ve never heard of anybody keeping stats on incarcerated deaths… maybe the prison?” Chris referred me to the Nevada Vital Statistics Department in Carson City… 775 684 4242.

9:10 AM… 02 June 2009… Adriana connected me to the statistics department, Alicia Hansen, the chief biostatistician. She wasn’t there, but I left a message about our inquiry.

4:16 PM… 03 June 2009… Alicia Hansen called back. She said that there is nothing on the death certificates to show whether those who have died were incarcerated or not. Her office uses a national, standardized form that does not have a place to put incarceration information.

A very professional and courteous Ms. Hansen directed me to and click statistics/annual statistical abstracts by fiscal year – 2007, p. 51. (Nevada’s fiscal year is from 01 July to 30 June yearly.) 46 prisoners died in fiscal year 2007. But, the death list itself was not there. That would have been too much to ask.

A note at the bottom of the last graph states: “*For the second half of Fiscal Year 2007 causes of death were classified as other due to a database conversion.” Hummm… what were the causes of death? And what does death by natural causes mean?

09 June 2009… I received word of a suicide at High Desert State Prison, that happened on 03 June 2009. I decided to call the public information officer (PIO) for NDOC to see who had died and how. The call was interesting. I ended up sending an email to the PIO. I CC’d a copy to Mr. Ross Miller, the current Nevada Secretary of State, also a current Nevada prison commissioner. Here’s how it went:
cc: SOS Exec
dateTue, Jun 9, 2009 at 12:39 PM
subjectATT: Suzanne Pardee, NDOC Public Information Officer

Ms. Pardee,

This communication is to follow up on my inquiry at 8:43 AM about a recent suicide at High Desert State Prison, Indian Springs, Nevada.

You confirmed that there was a suicide a week or so ago and that it had been investigated, but did not provide the name of the prisoner who took his own life, stating that you did “not have the name handy”… I asked you to call back with it, gave you my name and telephone number.

You replied, “OK.”

When you called back at 9:00 AM you stated that you forgot that the director had asked you to tell me to submit questions in writing. I would email you, I said, and you replied, with emphasis, “in writing.”

Barry Smith of the Nevada Press Association confirms that email is writing, so, here are my requests for public information about the suicide at High Desert State Prison and and a couple more additional requests.

How did Bryan Tyler Nowell (the Clark County Coroner’s Office provided his name to us) hang himself at High Desert State Prison, Indian Springs, Nevada, and with what did he hang himself?

How much health care training are officers and staff receiving in order to recognize Nevada prisoners’ mental and medical health crises to help prevent death?

Please provide the Nevada prisoner death list update from 20 May 2007 to the present.

Please send the Use of Force reports inside Nevada prisons for the last five years. I’m sure there are not that man.[sic] Please include firearm discharges.

Please advise of any duplication charges, or if you charge for electronic transmission (send by email in spread sheet form if possible) of this public information, please adivse.

Thank you for this and for all you do.

Have a wonderful day.

4:15… 09 June 2009… PIO Pardee’s reply arrived:

Given current active investigations within the Department we are asking that you contact the Attorney General’s office with any questions or concerns you may have.

Suzanne Pardee

To date… our search to secure the updated Nevada prisoner death lists from 20 May 2007 to the present, not that they will be completely accurate when we finally get them. But, we, the public, have the right to know about prisoner deaths and how they occurred. Prisoners are people. Prisons belong to the people, to the taxpayers who pay for them. Their fates are significant.

And so it goes. Maybe one day, things will change. Better service and record keeping will emerge. But, then again, maybe not. We’re not holding our breath. In the meantime, we keep going forward.

In closing, as of today, 10 June 2009, Public Information Officer Edie Cartwright in the Nevada Attorney General’s office has not called back, as she said she would. We’re not holding our breath on that one either.

Source: Nevada Prisoner Voice.

Note: here are figures from the 2007-2008 statistics for NDOC:

Howard Skolnik
(Reporting July 06-June 07)
Correctional Population Deaths by Fiscal Year and Cause (p. 51)

♦Deaths: The number of deceased offenders each year is included in the annual releases statistical
tables in a preceding section. Deaths encompass less than 1% of prison exits every year. In 2007,
the median dying age was 52 with this being 3 years younger than the median age in 2002.

Table 29
Type of Death FY 01 – FY 02 – FY 03 – FY 04 – FY 05 – FY 06 – FY 07*

Executions 1 – 0 – 0 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 0

Illness/Natural 18 – 21 – 27 – 20 – 28 – 29 – 30

AIDS 0 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 0 – 0 – 3

Suicide 3 – 0 – 2 – 0 – 3 – 0 – 6

Accidents 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0

Homicide 0 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 0 – 3 – 1

Other 2 – 1 – 0 – 1- 0 – 0 – 6

Total 24 – 25 – 31 – 25 – 32 – 33 – 46