Nevada prisons revamping how they deal with mentally ill inmates

Nevada Prisons Director James Dzurenda said on Tuesday he’s developing an organized system for how corrections deals with mentally ill inmates, including centralizing where those inmates are housed so they can be better treated.

“Right now we don’t have a formalized delivery system for the mental health of offenders,” he said. “We don’t have formalized criteria for what is considered seriously mentally ill.”

So many of those inmates now receiving some degree of mental health treatment are being moved to Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City or to High Desert Prison in Southern Nevada. He said that enables him to centralize the staff treating mental health issues including psychiatrists, psychologists and other professionals in those two places.

At the same time, he said the system is trying to give correctional officers training in handling inmates with mental issues more humanely and effectively.

He told the Board of Prison Commissioners that includes removing 88 inmates from Ely State Prison, Nevada’s maximum security institution for the most dangerous offenders including those on death row. The most dangerous of those mentally ill offenders, he said, won’t come to Carson City but to High Desert, which has a higher level of security.

Dzurenda said there are nearly 2,400 offenders in the system who are taking some psychotropic medications or are under psychiatric care.

Those who can be effectively treated, Dzurenda said, will then move to “step down units” that gradually prepare them for the general population in prison institutions.

The goal, he said: “We want to socialize them to the general population, so they can live around regular offenders before they get out into the community.”

But he said that goal comes with the “understanding there may be some offenders who may never get to the general population.”

Deputy Director David Tristan said the prison system has to deal with a wide range of mental health issues, not just the classic schizophrenia and paranoia, but traumatic brain injury, PTSD, drug abuse damage and other conditions.

So far, he said the mental health unit created at NNCC has about 300 inmates and is pretty much “maxed out.”

The plan to completely revamp how the prison system treats the mentally ill, he said, includes the addition of a new deputy director of mental health.


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