Nevada denies prison guards’ claim that state skimps on security |

Nevada denies prison guards’ claim that state skimps on security

Staff and wire reports

Nevada prison officials are denying guards’ union claims the state is skimping on security and administrators are retaliating against guards who complain.

“Our prisons are not out of control — they are controlled,” Glen Whorton, assistant state Corrections Department director, said Tuesday, a day after guards demonstrated at prisons in Carson City and near Las Vegas.

“This place is a time bomb waiting to happen,” Corrections Officer Martin Nustad declared during a Monday protest involving about 130 people outside High Desert and Southern Desert state prisons in Indian Springs.

Nustad said cellblocks were understaffed and some towers weren’t staffed at the medium- and high-security prison about 30 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

In Carson City on Monday, Scott MacKenzie, executive director for the Nevada Employees Association, said, “Corrections officers are essentially silenced. They cannot advocate for themselves without retaliation.”

“All the prisons are short-staffed,” said Samuel Covelli, president of the State of Nevada Employees Association and an employee at High Desert.

Covelli said that Sunday night there were eight officers available to respond to emergencies in the 1,800-inmate High Desert prison — although he did not know how many guards were stationed in towers and entrances.

Whorton characterized the performance of prison staff as “excellent,” and said that when staffing runs short, sections are closed to minimize risks.

A 2002 report by the American Correctional Association found that Nevada had 7.2 prisoners per guard, a high ratio compared to an average of 5.7 inmates per corrections officer found in 40 states that responded to the survey. Some large states, including California and Massachusetts, did not take part.

Whorton downplayed the national and state-to-state comparisons, saying that each state is different.

The State of Nevada Employees Association represents about 3,700 members in all state agencies, Covelli said.

He said he hoped the protests would make the public aware of what he said was an anti-union effort that prompted a federal lawsuit Dec. 26.

The lawsuit asks the court to force prison administrators to let union members associate and recruit, said Covelli, who said he is one of 11 union members recently put on paid administrative leave.

Covelli, a corrections officer for 17 years, said department policy prevents him from providing details of the charge of “conducting the property room in a criminal matter.”

But he said the charges resulted from his union activity, not wrongdoing.