NPW´s comments on the Vera Progress Report of September 2010

Here are NPW´s comments to some of the points made in the report of the:

VERA Institute of Justice
Action plan for the Nevada Department of Corrections
The Corrections Support and Accountability Project
September 2010

The Vera words are in italics, our comments are following each section.

Recommendation 3. Improve tracking system for inmate grievances and generate regular reports.
In Progress.

When problems were identified, such as a gap in recording some responses to grievances, staff worked to resolve the issue.

Our comments:

We wonder why there had been a gap in the first place?

Aside from this, we know of a class action lawsuit being prepared to make the courts force the NDOC to respond to grievances and to listen. So clearly not only the tracking system, but also the whole procedure should be reviewed and renewed. And not slowed down, as is now being reported by prisoners.

It is also strange that sometimes a grievance, like an Emergency grievance, is replied to by the person the grievance was written about or against. This creates partiality and the prisoner will almost certainly not be fairly treated then. (NPW)

NDOC should also create regular reports on trends in inmate grievances, both by facility and system-wide.

Our comment:

So will this help the prisoners with their complaints about needs of medical care, or violence being used on a prisoner? Who checks the trends? What action will be taken on these? (NPW)

Recommendation 4. Resolve more inmate grievances at the facility level.

In Progress.

NDOC made strides in some divisions to ensure that certain inmate grievances are resolved at the facility level. Primarily, when the Inspector General’s office receives a grievance alleging staff misconduct, they now ask facility wardens to conduct initial investigations into the claims. This process allows the facts to be verified in a timelier manner and relieves some of the backlog for investigations into these claims.

The full investigation into staff misconduct claims are ultimately handled by the Inspector General’s office, as they are serious in nature, but allowing the facility managers to take on a preliminary investigatory role will help staff resolve grievances more quickly.

Our comment:

This to us sounds like it will become EASIER to “resolve” an issue of staff misconduct by staff themselves. There are several instances in the past, where even the inspector general was sided by the warden and told what to say in his report. For instance has there ever been a formal independent investigation into the violent death of Timothy Redman (who died in November 2009, after being gassed for hours on end)?

If there ever was a proper, INDEPENDENT investigation, where is the report? Where is the press release? (NPW)

Recommendation 5. Consider creating a citizens review board for the inmate grievance process.

Under Consideration.

… Vera can also work with NDOC staff to identify those in the community that may be valuable and productive members of the citizens review board. NDOC will need to identify who in the department is most able to handle the responsibilities of overseeing the board and coordinating its efforts.

Our comment:

This sounds a bit dodgy: how will the public know if those that “represent” them are fair, and will this review board ever side with the victim or accused, how impartial are they? What is just, and how does the review board member investigate? How will the prisoners know? How much will the review board be influenced by the NDOC, the facility, the warden, etc? If NDOC chooses the citizen review board, how impartial will it be? What about human rights abuses? What about disproportionate sentences that the prisons themselves give out to a prisoner, without any outside judge involved, without any advocate/lawyer on behalf of a prisoner?

There are many rules to break in a prison, but we are most concerned by the staff misconduct and violence aimed at prisoners, the lack of medical care, the lack of healthy food, of programs, education, spiritual care. If these human rights are attacked by staff, and a prisoner is being wrongfully accused or not treated, or denied his or her rights, how will this citizen review board have any influence at all?

Incidents are documented where a prisoner was attacked by staff and hurt, and yet he was sent the bill to pay for his injuries caused by staff members. How will a citizens review board deal with these issues? (NPW)

Recommendation 7. Provide pro bono attorneys for inmates in the Inmate
Early Mediation Program.

Under Consideration.

In conversations between Vera and the magistrate judge who oversees the Inmate Early Mediation Program, it is clear that the courts believe it would be beneficial for the inmates to have legal representation at their mediations. However, NDOC administrators have some concerns about adopting this regulation. While the department is in favor of any process that enhances the likelihood of resolving complaints before they reach the courts, the department is wary of settling alleged frivolous claims and setting precedents that may expose the department to additional liability.

To assist in accomplishing this recommendation, Vera will initiate a dialogue with the courts and magistrate judge to discuss the realities of these concerns and how and whether to begin moving forward on this recommendation. NDOC will be involved with these conversations as much as possible. Vera will also work with the courts to identify opportunities to recruit additional pro bono attorneys to sustain the program.

Our comment:

This is precisely why a prisoner should need access to an attorney: the courts have often dismissed cases, because prisoners could not make their case heard without the help of an attorney who is good and capable of voicing his or her client´s need for justice done. (NPW)

Recommendation 8. Keep more investigations at the facility level.

In Progress.

As noted in Vera’s status report, NDOC has worked to move more investigations to the facility level. Specifically, NDOC revised Administrative Regulation 340 to reflect its commitment to ensuring investigations of lower-level offenses are handled at the facility level.

Our comment:

We just got note that the grievance process is slowed down for the prisoners: the time limits to respond to grievances are now 45 days in the informal level, 45 days to the first level and 60 days at the second level. What used to be done in 75 days now can take 5 months to try and resolve. Prisoners think this is set up to slow the process down so that men will not desire to push the issue, because it takes so long to be resolved or just be denied anyway. Is this fair? (NPW, we just had a response from someone in a facility down south about this)

Recommendation 10. Train select staff to run reports in NOTIS.

In Progress.

Our comment:
some records of prisoners are so old and outdated, they have not been touched in years it seems. Are these records really used by staff, to check the level of the prisoners´ custody? Because there ARE mistakes right now in this, that can have influence on the security level a prisoner is kept on. (NPW)

Recommendation 13. Clarify the role of the Board.

Under Consideration.

NDOC administrators believe the fact that the Board follows up on few, if any, issues raised by citizens at public meetings is rather clear to all attendees. However, there does seem to be some frustration among advocates with the way the Board handles their concerns.

To begin implementation of this recommendation, NDOC administrators can work with the Board members to develop language to explicitly state, prior to the public comment portion of the meeting, that it is outside the Board’s capacity to investigate or follow up on any concerns raised by the public. If other recommendations are implemented (see Recommendation 14, below) the Board can refer concerned citizens to other channels to lodge their complaints.

Our comment:
So it is official now: all our (the Public´s) comments are useless. Public has to go to other channels. Maybe to the weblog of Nevada Prison Watch? (NPW)

Recommendation 14. Develop system for following up on concerns received at public meetings.

In Progress.

At the national meeting for the Corrections Support and Accountability Project, NDOC staff met an inmate advocate who has developed a robust, collaborative relationship with the corrections director in another of Vera’s partner jurisdictions.

NDOC staff admired this relationship, and, following that meeting, Director Skolnik
reached out to particular inmate advocates in Nevada in an effort to develop a more
formal and positive relationship between NDOC and the advocate community.

The director has met with several advocates to begin discussing the possibility of formalizing their relationship and develop another channel through which the public and inmates can express their concerns to the department.

These individuals worked with the advocate from Vera’s partner jurisdiction in preparation for a meeting with NDOC. At the first formal meeting, which took place on August 31, 2010, the group identified several areas where the department can begin improvements immediately, including making some changes to the department’s website. The advocates also indicated they will be working to reestablish a CURE chapter in Nevada, hopefully by January 2011.

To complete this recommendation, NDOC should continue its efforts in establishing
relationships with the inmate advocates in Nevada. It also needs to determine the best individual to be the liaison between the department and individuals at public meetings.

Because of the developing relationship between the department and the advocate community, it may be beneficial to request one of the advocates take on this role. The department should arrange for this individual to attend all meetings where public
comment is received and make the public aware of his or her presence and purpose.

NDOC must also work to develop an internal process for handling the concerns and
complaints received by the liaison. Vera will provide assistance as necessary.

Our comment:

Although it is good to hear that NDOC wants to work with “some” inmate advocacy people, we wonder if they will actually listen?

And will Cure be our only tie, our representative to be heard by NDOC? Who else of advocates has heard about this “developing relationship between the department and the advocate community”?

There are many people outside Nevada involved with prisoners in Nevada, family members, friends, concerned people from outside. How do they contact these certain inmate advocates? How do they keep up to date with what is going on?We are free to organize our own advocacy, but will NDOC NOT listen to the others? (as far as we here at NPW know, Cure has yet to find us) (NPW)

Recommendation 15. Create an ombudsman to handle complaints by inmates, staff and the public.

Under Consideration.

The director and his staff have been receptive to creating other avenues through which the department can build bridges with inmates, staff and the public. One example of this is the current effort to develop more solid relationships with inmate advocates in the state (see above, Recommendation 15). However, at this time there are concerns about whether creating an additional state employee position is financially feasible.

If NDOC decides to pursue this recommendation, either now or in the future, the department will need to decide whether this new function should be housed internal to the department or whether it will be housed in another government agency. This may involve consulting with internal staff, external stakeholders and government officials to determine what is best, considering, for example, the degree of independence desired and how that will affect the public’s view of the office’s legitimacy.

If it should be housed externally, the department needs to identify the appropriate state agency to house the ombudsman and will need to gain support from the key staff in that agency. Another consideration for the department and stakeholders is the extent of the ombudsman’s jurisdiction and whether it will focus only on the department or will extend to other state government functions, such as parole and probation. A final issue will be identifying funding for the new ombudsman’s office. NDOC can work with Vera to identify potential grant opportunities or try to find funding from the state. NDOC may also consider the possibility of a volunteer ombudsman, but that should only be a temporary solution while the state is under such stringent budget constraints.

Our comment:

We highly recommend an Ombudsman. But we wonder: does the NDOC really want an Ombudsman, who is independent? Why does not the State of Nevada pay for this person then, instead of NDOC? If they are paid by NDOC, how independent will they be?

The fact that there is a need for this person says a lot about how the rights of prisoners have been abused and trampled under for so many years. If there are less lawsuits in court, maybe the money saved on that will pay for this much needed person. (NPW)

Recommendation 17. Develop a publicly available data dashboard.

Under Consideration.

As mentioned above, NDOC does a commendable job of posting thorough information regarding its population on its website on a consistent basis. These reports provide data on population by facility, projected populations, admissions and releases, and inmate days by facility. While this information is helpful, a great deal of the other data the department collects may be of interest to the public. As discussed in other sections of this report, NDOC is working with Syscon to gain greater control over the functioning of its data system, specifically gaining access to source codes. This will help in the development of the dashboard.

Our comment:

As far as we can see, these data are in not very accessible spreadsheets, and there are practically no data on deaths in prison. I know that one of the public has had to go through many loops to get the figures about the inmate deaths in custody. (NPW)

Recommendation 18. Create a dedicated Public Information Officer position.

Under Consideration.

NDOC administrators have identified a need for someone to handle, full time, the responsibilities of communicating with the public and media.

Our comment:

Well that would help us, the public and the people directly involved with prisoners. Right now there is a total lack of communication to the public when an inmate death or a riot or so occurs. (NPW)

Our conclusions:

It is very surprising that this whole report has had to be written. It must have been (and was, no doubt) a big mess inside NDOC, that the administration has had to be taken by the hand and shown how things have to be. Shame on the NDOC admin to keep covering things up and to keep their interests above any human rights abuses. Money and self-interest is to NDOC clearly more important than rights, than ethical reasons and to apply justice. So we hope there will come an INDEPENDENT Ombudsman.

We hope the grievance system will be much improved, but we firmly believe that grievances have to be resolved more independently and not by the staff against whom the grievance is filed.

We hope there will be no more cover ups by the NDOC, but clarity. We hope there will be no more violence by staff, and in case there is violence done by staff, that the perpetrators will be prosecuted, and the victims NOT be charged and NOT made to pay their own hospital bills.

We hope this Vera report does help, but we remain skeptical until we see positive changes for the prisoner population. (NPW)