By Michelle Rindels
In a move that Gov. Brian Sandoval said took “a lot of courage and guts,” two correctional officers who work at a Carson City prison spoke out Thursday to say they fear cost-cutting measures in the department could lead to a tragedy.
Officers Tejay Harvey and Amber Fryer spoke during a public comment period to raise concerns that a new, aggressive effort to tamp down on overtime in the Nevada Department of Corrections is leading to dangerously low staffing levels. Strict new policies were put in place after it was revealed the department was $15 million over budget a little over halfway through the fiscal year, a situation that threatened to eat up reserves that benefit the entire state.
Sandoval’s office has embedded a team of finance experts, led by senior adviser Andrew Clinger, into the department to come up with cost-saving strategies and the move has led to dramatic drops in overtime hours, as reported by The Nevada Appeal. While Southern Nevada’s High Desert State Prison had 6,350 hours of overtime in the Jan. 12 pay period, it had only had 112 in the Feb. 23 pay period. Similarly, Northern Nevada Correctional Center’s overtime hours dropped from 3,403 in the Jan. 12 pay period to 628 in the Feb. 23 period.
But the officers said that’s coming at a cost, such as more solo staffing in difficult mental health units, talk of leaving some towers that look out for escapees unmanned and inmates restless and irritable because of reductions in services and recreational time.
“Here’s the answer you seek — the taxpayers have saved money from overtime in corrections during the past month because vital positions have been cut,” said Fryer, adding that correctional officers have been hesitant to speak out about the troubles they’re seeing on the ground. “The only place you can get all your answers has been silenced by an environment of fear of retaliation, until now … These incredibly bold men and women work the trenches in order to keep the community safe by facing unspeakable situations. They are the very epitome of bravery.”
Fryer said she has noticed more fights, describing an incident a few days ago when she responded to an inmate who had been assaulted and was covered in blood from head to toe. Still, top NDOC officials insist they haven’t seen a surge in inmate assaults since the tighter staffing went into place, although specific statistics on fights and inmate-on-staff assaults for the preceding period were not provided at the meeting as they were at the last Board of Prison Commissioners gathering.
Both officers brought up an incident in Pennsylvania on Feb. 15 when an inmate beat and kicked a corrections officer to death after the guard had confiscated a towel the prisoner was using to keep people from seeing into his cell. Another corrections officer tried to intervene in that situation, but Harvey wondered aloud whether there would be another officer around to help if something similar happened in Nevada.
“I’m not here because I’m trying to stir the pot,” Harvey said in testimony from Carson City. “I’m here because my conscience won’t be clear if a life is lost and I said nothing.”
He said facilities are being operated at below minimum staffing levels to comply with new austerity measures.
Harvey also took umbrage at a comment made by Deputy Director John Borrowman at a recent audit committee hearing as the committee tried to figure out why overtime costs were growing by 30 percent in each of the past three years. Pressed if there was any malfeasance going on by corrections officers helping their friends take time off, Borrowman said it would be naive to say there weren’t some people gaming the system.
“However those quotes were intended, they missed their mark,” Harvey said.
The audit found that 93 percent of officers taking overtime were assigned it rather than volunteering for it. Harvey said that often happens when, 45 minutes before one eight-hour shift ends, a supervisor tells an officer that he or she will have to stay for another eight hours.
He said he watched a brand new officer report to his assignment and be told, “I hope you brought enough food for 16 hours.” On another occasion, an officer who asked not to be assigned to mandatory overtime because of a prior commitment was told that if he didn’t like it, he should quit, Harvey said. And in another instance, an officer who had relocated from Arizona for a Nevada officer job had to do so much mandatory overtime that she could no longer find child care for her children and had to quit and return to Arizona.
Harvey said during a seven-month period last year, he had to do mandatory overtime nearly 40 times, missing his daughter’s birthday, his anniversary and a visit from out-of-town family.
“I’ve never been so close to leaving this department as I was last year,” he said, adding that he’s since moved from graveyard to day shift, where the overtime situation is better.
He and Fryer suggested the problem could be fixed by switching from 8-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts.
One of Harvey’s biggest concerns has been a new policy on monitoring inmates who are hospitalized. The old policy called for two guards per inmate — something that resulted in massive staff demands at one point last year when six female inmates were giving birth around the same time. The new policy calls for one guard per inmate plus a roving officer who monitors up to four inmates.
Harvey said officers have been trained how to work in the two-person scenario but not in the one-person model, and guidance has been vague. He worried that the new setup will raise the risk of escapes or assaults within community hospitals where civilians are being treated, and raised questions about whether the prison regulations even allow such staffing adjustments for budgetary reasons.
Corrections chief James Dzurenda said the policy was in line with what was happening in other parts of the country and how local police agencies handle jail inmates. Prisons officials also reiterated that the new medical transport policy had been vetted before it was handed down.
“When we start doing changes in any policy, we don’t just make up policy, we research it. The number one priority is safety,” said Dzurenda, adding that wardens have the authority to change things up if they believe there’s a high risk.
Still, Deputy Director of Operations Harold Wickham apologized on behalf of the department and said he hadn’t communicated the policy changes clearly enough. He offered himself up to listen to rank-and-file officers’ concerns.
Sandoval, who was one of the most strident at the January audit meeting that the department needed to make changes to stay within budget, commended the officers for speaking out and admonished corrections officials to take the warnings seriously.
“It’s a difficult issue on both sides,” the governor said. “Under no circumstances would we ever compromise your safety in the name of saving money.”