Corrections Dept. rule has extended prisoners’ sentences during pandemic

Corrections Dept. rule has extended prisoners’ sentences during pandemic
High Desert Prison in Indian Springs, Nevada.

Lawmakers urged to retroactively fix NDOC good time credits policy

By Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
This story was originally published by Nevada Current.

CARSON CITY–Inmates have been locked up months past their release date because of a Nevada Department of Corrections interpretation of a regulation regarding “good time” credits during the pandemic.

Now, prison advocates and civil rights groups say the Legislature might be the last chance to help eligible inmates be released. 

NDOC and the governor’s office have been unwilling to do anything to correct this,” said Jodi Hocking, founder of the advocacy group Return Strong. “Director (Charles) Daniels point-blank told us that we need to bring this issue to people who have the power and authority to make the decisions, which was the Legislature.” 

An inmate normally receives good time credits for working or taking part in various work, educational, rehabilitation and training programs that would reduce their maximum sentence by at least five days for each month they work or participate in the programs.

But the jobs and programs have been shut down during the pandemic.

As a result, inmates have lost at least 60 days of good time credits over the last year, according to attorneys and advocacy groups.

From October 2020 to February 2021, Hocking said Return Strong identified 817 people who should have received mandatory parole hearings and 71 whose sentences would have ended “if they would have received 60 credits they lost over the course of this year.”

“Every month, we could literally log on to offender management and watch NDOC add five days a month to our loved ones’ sentences,” Hocking said. “It just kept getting further away.”

In an email, Teri Vance, a spokeswoman with NDOC, said the department “never adds days to the end of a sentence – that would be a violation of state statute.”

“The Nevada Department of Corrections is currently implementing a policy to provide meritorious credits to all offenders, as they were unable to earn the good time credits through working or programming during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vance wrote.

Hocking provided the Nevada Current a letter the associate warden at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center sent to inmates Feb. 5, informing them a “projection expiration date is conditional,” and though the department provides inmates with estimates, “if an inmate does not earn the maximum number of credits” the estimated release date is changed.

The letter reads: “Inmates must ‘EARN’ their work credits, meaning they have to actually work. Due to COVID-19 restrictions many inmates have been unable to work (at no fault of their own), but the Nevada Department of Corrections cannot issue work credits when the inmate did not actually earn them. I understand that not earning work credits is affecting inmates’ release date, but at this time the Nevada Department of Corrections wants to do everything we can to keep inmates and staff safe.”

Because of the February letter, Hocking was confused by Vance’s statement Monday.

“I hope that’s what they really mean, that they are going to create a policy that gives credit to all people who were incarcerated during the pandemic who did not have options for programming,” she added. “I hope they don’t start to backpedal off that number and redefine ‘all’ once the policy is implemented and certain segments of the prison population aren’t included.”

Holly Welborn, the policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, called the department’s statement welcomed news but wants to know more about the parameters of those credits. 

“We hope they will be automatically applied so people can safely return home as soon as possible,” she said.

Assembly Bill 241, sponsored by Las Vegas Democratic Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez, received its first hearing Monday and would restore credits lost during a state of emergency. The legislation, if passed, would be retroactive and give the Nevada Department of Corrections 60 days to submit a list of inmates eligible to receive credits. 

“This gives back good time credits to offenders who earned it through good behavior, education attainment, or the successful completion of treatment programs,” Gonzalez said.

While it is possible inmates could have accrued more than five days per month depending on the program, the bill caps it at 60 days of credits.

“We really scaled this back to provide something reasonable,” said Welborn, who presented alongside Gonzalez during the committee hearing.

‘He was supposed to be out’

Since the start of the pandemic, groups have warned of potential COVID-19 outbreaks behind bars. 

Elected officials and the prison director were pushed to reduce the prison population in an attempt to prevent subsequent outbreaks and death. 

Despite rigorously and repeatedly asking Gov. Steve Sisolak to consider compassionate release for some inmates or to issue executive orders to reduce prison populations as COVID-19 cases increased, nothing was implemented at the state level. 

In a year, 5,460 inmates and staff have contracted COVID-19 and 56 have died. The most drastic increases were seen in the fall.  

“Only three other states, that includes Michigan, Kentucky and New Mexico, have reported a higher per capita rate of prison deaths than Nevada,” Welborn said. “We have to take pause and ask ourselves what we as a state can do to correct this.” 

On Monday, supporters of AB 241 shared stories of worry and heartbreak as they watched loved ones remain locked up beyond the date they were expected to come home. 

Consequences have been deadly. 

Jan Salvay’s nephew Nicholas, an inmate at the Nevada Department of Corrections, was supposed to be released in October 2020, but his date kept getting pushed back because he wasn’t awarded good time credits for most of the year, because of the pandemic. 

He was finally released this year and died weeks later from Hepatitis C, which went untreated while incarcerated.

“He was supposed to be out in time to vote,” Salvay said. “He was supposed to be out in time for his dad’s birthday, my birthday, his grandfather’s father’s birthday. Then he was supposed to be out in time for Christmas.” 

Even though his release was delayed, Salvay said medical staff denied him treatment for Hepatitis C because “he’d be out too soon to qualify.”

“By the time he was released, his disease had reached levels described by his physicians as very, very bad,” Salvay said. “By the time he was released and by the time we could get him medical care, he didn’t make it.” 

Lisa Rasmussen, an attorney representing Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, called it a travesty that NDOC was “punting to the Legislature.”

She also urged lawmakers to expedite passing AB 241.

“I think the real question is how quickly it could pass, because waiting until June creates more damage and more danger,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that the Legislature has to save the director of the Department of Corrections from himself by passing common sense bills. But this is where we are.” 

The Nevada Department of Corrections was absent from the bill hearing. When asked why the department declined to testify at the hearing, Vance didn’t respond. 

No one opposed the bill.

Tom Lawson, chief of the Parole and Probation Division who spoke testified as “neutral” on the legislation, said if it passes, the department might see a surge in past parole eligibility data. He added it might result in limited opportunities for placing inmates in programs and housing. 

Supporters called the bill a conservative measure, arguing it’s the very least lawmakers could do after failing to protect inmates during the pandemic. 

“If I could come here and say, ‘because of the torture that people endured they deserve much more than the five days … so let’s give them all a year credit,’ I would absolutely do it,” Hocking said. “What we’re really asking for is what they are supposed to get in the first place. We’re not asking for extra. We’re asking for the Legislature to make incarcerated people whole and give them what the state says they should get.”