Lawmakers beat up the Department of Corrections for more than an hour Thursday but it wasn’t so much about what Director Charles Daniels did as about the fact he didn’t tell lawmakers about it until well after the Ely Conservation Camp was shut down.
Even the Governor’s Finance Director Susan Brown told the Interim Finance Committee their office is supposed to be consulted in advance of changes as drastic as closing down an institution.
Daniels told lawmakers he had an emergency situation on his hands after a fight at the camp that involved five inmates attacking another inmate, stabbing him. He said the camp was so understaffed that it was no longer safe to manage that facility with just nine correctional officers.
But he said the camp will be reopened as soon as they can get adequate staffing for it, that it’s closure isn’t permanent.
The problem in the Ely area is the complete lack of affordable housing for corrections employees, in part because the mines pay much better, driving up the cost of housing.
The department has the power to move inmates from one institution to another and to temporarily move staff around, unlike most state agencies. But since that stabbing happened in July, lawmakers uniformly argued they should have been informed much sooner than they were that the camp was closed and its officers moved to help cover another serious staff shortage at the maximum security Ely State Prison the camp serves. Legislative staff really wasn’t aware of the situation until two months after the problems arose.
In addition to the camp problem, Daniels said the state prison warden told him his staff was below the emergency level and he couldn’t safely operate the prison without more bodies.
Daniels said the answer was to move camp inmates to other camps around the state and move the camp officers to the maximum security prison. He said even before the stabbing incident, he was developing a plan to convert Ely into a medium security facility that requires far fewer guards than the maximum security institution that holds Nevada’s most dangerous inmates including those on death row. He said that would relieve the ongoing problem Ely and the Ely camp have in recruiting staff and move the most dangerous inmates to High Desert in Southern Nevada.
Speaker of the House Jason Frierson and IFC Chair Maggie Carlton, both D-Las Vegas, said simply that lawmakers should have been told what was happening when it was happening, not two months later. Frierson said it would have been easy to pick up the phone and call legislative leadership to let them know there was an emergency. And Carlton questioned the ability of corrections to move people and staff without notifying them ahead of time.
Among IFC members, only Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, whose district includes the Ely institutions, said he was aware the camp was closed. He said he was also aware of efforts to convert it to a medium security institution but assumed everyone else also knew that. He said he didn’t know the camp was shut down until well after it happened.
Daniels said he looks forward to reopening the camp as soon as it’s safe and properly staffed. That camp provides a variety of services from inmate crews in northeastern Nevada — especially fire crews that local officials want to ensure continue operating there.
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