A report by the Association of State Correctional Administrators says the Nevada Department of Corrections depends too much on weapons — particularly shotguns loaded with birdshot — to control inmates.
And the report released Tuesday says the problem is largely staff, noting Nevada has the nation’s lowest number of custody staff to inmates.
“The lack of staff to deter inmates from attacking other inmates or staff and the lack of staff to respond quickly to incidents have placed the department in the position of relying heavily and almost exclusively on the use of weapons to maintain order,” the report states.
Interim Director of Corrections E.K. McDaniel said the 2015 Legislature authorized a total of about 100 added corrections staff, the first quarter of which have already been hired. He said another batch will be hired in January and the remainder in fiscal 2017.
The report lists a total of 208 incidents during the past three years in which birdshot or blank rounds were fired. Of that total, 146 have been at High Desert State Prison in Southern Nevada, the system’s largest prison and the institution where, except for death row prisoners, many of the most dangerous inmates are.
Of the 71 times birdshot was used, more than half — 48 — were at High Desert State Prison.
By comparison, Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City saw just five situations in three years where birdshot was used and only six more where blank rounds were fired.
ASCA made 10 recommendations, concluding with eventual elimination of the use of birdshot fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. McDaniel said the department doesn’t agree with that recommendation but is adopting a number of recommendations that should reduce the use of shotguns.
As another interim measure, McDaniel said the department is expanding the use of rubber bullets — basically a shotgun shell loaded with more than a dozen rubber balls that cause less damage than lead pellets. That weapon has been used only at High Desert until now.
McDaniel said inmates are first given a verbal warning to stop fighting or other prohibited conduct. If that doesn’t work, a blank shotgun shell — loud noise but no pellets — is fired followed by another warning. If that doesn’t work, the rubber bullet would be used and only if that doesn’t work, birdshot.
He emphasized neither the birdshot nor the rubber bullets are fired directly at inmates. Instead they are skipped off the ground in front of the inmates.
McDaniel said the department will be rewriting some of its use of force policy to match other recommendations and make the policy more clear.
He said Corrections also agrees with the report in the need for an increase in the annual training for correctional staff.
But he said he doesn’t understand the report’s call for issuing handcuffs and batons to staff along with pepper spray. He said staff already has handcuffs and batons are available when needed. Pepper spray, McDaniel said, would be issued when appropriate but for example tower guards don’t need it because they aren’t in direct contact with inmates.
He said the department will be working on an implementation schedule and a plan for all the changes including training of officers.
The full report and the department’s responses will be presented to the Board of Prison Commissioners in December.
The Nevada Prison System has about 13,000 inmates in six prisons and a number of conservation camps scattered around the state.