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New Nevada prisons chief declares shift toward inmate rehab

Ken Ritter
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The Nevada state official hired to reshape life behind bars in Nevada state prisons is promising to shift the system toward inmate rehabilitation, in an effort to protect the public.

Mission and vision directives issued Tuesday by Nevada Department of Corrections chief James Dzurenda said the aim will be to give prisoners skills to adjust to life outside prison so they don’t end up back behind bars. “Our goal to lessen victimization in our communities hinges on inmates changing their behavior,” Dzurenda said in an accompanying statement to the media.

Gov. Brian Sandoval endorsed Dzurenda’s effort as a first step toward reshaping state prisons for guards and inmates.

Several people who have been critical of Nevada prison policies and practices said they’re willing to give it a chance.

“This guy is putting lipstick on a pig. NDOC is still the pig,” said Alexis Plunkett, an attorney who represents an inmate wounded by shotgun blasts from a guard in November 2014. Another inmate was killed.

But Plunkett said she has seen signs of change during recent visits to facilities including Nevada’s maximum-security prison in Ely — like shackles being removed from inmates sitting alone in a barren room behind safety glass while talking with visitors.

“Just removing those shackles means a lot,” Plunkett said. “They couldn’t even sign a document or eat anything.”

Dzurenda “appears to be legitimately addressing everything from the bottom to the top,” Plunkett said. “I do applaud him for immediately fixing some glaring errors.”

The vision statement says the goal will be to “reduce victimization and recidivism by providing offenders with incentive for self-improvement and the tools to effect change.”

The mission statement says, “The Nevada Department of Corrections will improve public safety by ensuring a safe and humane environment that incorporates proven rehabilitation initiatives that prepare individuals for successful reintegration into our communities.”

Dzurenda acknowledged the system previously focused only on safety. Nevada has about 13,500 inmates in 18 prison facilities statewide.

The system has drawn criticism, complaints and lawsuits over violence behind bars, including the use of gunfire by guards against inmates.

Dzurenda, who began the Nevada job April 4, has promised to change department policy on using shotguns.

Attorney Cal Potter is handling several prison lawsuits against the state, including one by the family of the inmate killed in the November 2014 shooting at High Desert State Prison. He said the entire correctional system needs to be overhauled.

“Nevada has been in cover-up mode for so long the director will need to start hiring wardens that share his stated vision and ideals,” Potter said.

Potter said Dzurenda should also address complaints about lack of medical care for inmates.

John Witherow, head of an inmate advocacy group called Nevada Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, said he hopes to work with Dzurenda and prison officials “to implement rehabilitative procedures and bring our people back into our communities.”

Dzurenda, a longtime former prisons guard-turned-commissioner in Connecticut, came to Nevada from the New York City Department of Correction, where he spent 20 months overseeing nine facilities and about 9,000 inmates at city jails including Rikers Island. The sprawling Rikers facility has drawn intense scrutiny in recent years, after dozens of inmate deaths highlighted poor supervision, questionable medical care and a failure to prevent suicides.

Sandoval dismissed former Nevada prisons chief Greg Cox in September after Cox failed to produce a report on time about shootings of inmates by guards. E.K. McDaniel, who served as interim director, retired when Dzurenda arrived.