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A look inside solitary confinement at Nevada state prison

Solitary...it’s a punishment once thought to reform, but is it inflicting more harm than good? News 3 goes inside the cell for a rare look at one prison reinventing incarceration. (KSNV)

I’m standing in a prison cell. The metal sink and toilet are to my right, just beyond the steel door. Six feet in front of me is an empty bunk bed build into the cement wall.

A narrow window is the only source of light. There is a cord for cable television sticking out of the wall, I’m told a small TV set would cost an inmate $380. “Waiting for the tax refund.” The inmate who calls this narrow cell home tells me.

It is just one of the cells in Housing Unit C, which can hold 336 inmates at a time. We have gotten a rare look inside High Desert Prison, the medium security prison that has drawn criticism for their use of birdshot and a controversial practice of segregating inmates who are HIV positive from general population.

“I’m not going to hide it.”

Nevada Prisons are changing. The new man tasked with rethinking incarceration, bringing detention out of a seeming dark age, is Director James Dzurenda. Who admits the prison system needs to be fixed.

“If we’re doing something bad I’m not going to hide it.” Dzurenda tells me.

He is splitting his time between Nevada and his home state of Connecticut, where he’s worked in corrections for thirty years. He believes change begins with segregation.

You might know it as solitary confinement, in the movies they call it "the hole."

In Nevada it means 23 hours inside one of those cells we stood in inside “C” pod. One hour is allowed for exercise outside in a cage.

There is no telling how many inmates are currently in segregation because there is no way for the prison system to count them.

“Our system does a poor job tracking it.” The Director says. “It’s important we know how we’re getting better. We don’t have a system that can do that.”

Dzurenda is now petitioning the State for a computer system that would allow all of Nevada’s Prisons to track each other’s numbers.

What they do know, by their own admission, is segregation is being used far too often.

Typically only used for protecting inmates or staff, in Nevada segregation is used as a punishment. In an ACLU report entitled

“Unlocking Solitary Confinement” anonymous inmates reported being put in segregation for talking to inmates from other pods, others said they were put in seg after filing complaints about guards.

The damage the isolation of segregation can cause is severe. We talked to a former inmate who put life in seg like this.

“You can only lock a person up for so long and they’re going to lose their sanity. Eventually they’re going to expire, they’re going to get out and what are they going to do?", said the inmate.

That is one question that weighs on Dzurenda. The prisons, he tells us, needs to start thinking about what happens after an inmate is released.

“When I first got here,” Dzurenda says, “the mission was ‘we watch and detain offenders that were assigned to us. Well, I told the staff here ‘if that’s all we do then they can get security guards to do that. We in corrections do more that. They’re just going to be warehoused. You can’t do that. If you think an offender is bad and all you’re doing is warehousing him, he’s probably not going to get better.”

In solitary inmates are not allowed access to mental health services or work and educational programs.

30% of the inmates in the ACLU report claimed they either had suicidal thoughts or self-harmed. In Nevada an average stay in solitary is more than a year.

“That makes no sense to me.” The new Director tells us. “If the inmates are doing well there’s no reason to put them in there. Our goal should be the immediate effects. Protect people immediately, but not leave it long term.”

“I thought he was kidding.”

When James Dzurenda was first hired in April of 2016 Governor Brian Sandoval tasked him with looking at two policies that put the prison system under a legal spotlight. The policy of using birdshot as a non-lethal force, and the practice of separating inmates who were HIV positive. When we talked to Dzurenda about that, he was blunt.

“When the Governor first talked about birdshot I did some research. I was shocked. At first I thought he was kidding but I knew he wasn’t after a while. The HIV issue? Separating inmates? I mean separating inmates mean other offenders know that to. If they’re separated everyone knows who has HIV", said Dzurenda.

The use of birdshot was common practice in Nevada. It also led to several lawsuits by inmates who said they were seriously injured.

Inmates who were HIV positive were put in segregation as a matter of state law. When an inmate tested positive as part of routine screening, they were placed in seg and denied work release programs and certain jobs in the prison.

Amid pressure from the Department of Justice the prison system stopped that policy. Dzurenda now wants to change the state law.

“That stopped part of the HIPAA laws, that stopped in the 1980’s separating people. But that was happening here.”

The policy of separating and segregating inmates was approved as recently as 2014 by a panel that included Governor Brian Sandoval and then Attorney General, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.

The prison system is now going through immediate changes. New educational and work training programs are coming this summer.

As Director Dzurenda puts it “Wouldn’t you want to flood those inmates with programs that would change that behavior? Eliminate it.”

The prisons are also changing the way they look at segregation by taking a look at it. They are one of only five states that are welcoming in the Vera Institute to review segregation here.

Researchers with VERA will spend 18 months in Nevada reviewing policies.

The focus now is on what can be a scary reality. 88% of these inmates will be released within 18 years of stepping foot inside.

Dzurenda wants to make sure the men and women that walk out of prison walls are better people than who first walked in.

“If you are releasing offenders directly from segregation that have been in there long term, that’s a security risk in the community. You’re jeopardizing public safety by doing stuff like that.”

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