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Changing Of The Guard At Nevada Dept Of Corrections

This month the Nevada Department of Corrections starts new training for its staff to de-escalate inmate fights without resorting to firearms. The reforms follow a critical review of the department’s use-of-force policies prompted by multiple shootings that left one inmate dead in 2014. 

E.K. McDaniel is a 23-year veteran of the Nevada Department of Corrections and a former warden in Ely.

Now the interim director of the agency, he’s giving me a tour of Lovelock Prison, a medium-security facility an hour and a half north of Reno — home to 1,650 inmates, including O.J. Simpson.

“We go around the corner, you can see a tower," he says. "The towers are mainly for the function of controlling the perimeter. So you have a double perimeter fence around the facility.”

In each of those towers, correctional officers have access to a guns with live ammunition. Meanwhile, on the inside, control rooms are equipped with shotguns that can be loaded with blanks, rubber rounds or birdshot, depending on the situation.

The birdshot in particular is considered a non-deadly form of force, a designation that has attracted some scrutiny from legal experts, like Daniel Vasquez, a corrections consultant and former warden of San Quentin.

He says the policy is a legacy of a former California warden named George Sumner, who went on to run the Nevada Department of Corrections.

“He was a warden at San Quentin State Prison a couple of wardens before I got there, and he instituted the shotgun there as well with 7.5 birdshot, and he did the same thing in Nevada,” says Vasquez.

California has since phased out the use of high-powered weapons to control inmates, says Vasquez, prompted by several lawsuits of shooting victims.  

Nevada, facing similar lawsuits, is looking at ways of updating its own use-of-force policies.

“That’s one of the things we’ve done; we’ve revised our use-of-force policy; we’re in the process of that, looking at giving us some more stop gaps to try to prevent people from hurting each other,” says McDaniel.

McDaniel, who took over the position last fall, points to recent successes equipping officers with pepper spray and batons, and training them in something he describes as verbal judo.

“So instead of physically putting your hands on someone like you would with judo,” he says, “this is how to talk people down, talk to people, listen to them, understand how to communicate with people to get them to do what you want them to do.”

The changes follow a review last year ordered by the Board of State Prison Commissioners and conducted by the outside group called the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

The 40-page report faulted the department for inconsistencies in its policies and inadequate staffing and training. 

Still, some legal experts, like attorney Tom Pitaro, would like to see Nevada take it a step further and ban the use of shotguns altogether.

“One of the problems, of course, is they’ve maintained the live ammunition option, which is my understanding most other correctional institutions have, in fact, done away with,” says Pitaro. 

Pitaro is a criminal defense attorney in Las Vegas who defended a correctional officer involved in a shooting incident a few years ago.

“With improper procedures, bad things happen and they happen to a lot of people,” says Pitaro. “It’s not just the inmates, these things affect the guard and the institution.”

McDaniel defends their use, saying the shotguns were only ever intended as a last line of defense.

“We know that the use of using the 12-gauge shotgun with the 7.5 birdshot as a less-than-lethal method to control serious behavior,” he says. “We know that by utilizing that and having the availability to use that, that we’ve saved people’s lives.”

Updating its use-of-force policies is just one aspect of a new tactic the department is taking to shed more light on what’s going on behind bars.

The tour, says McDaniel, is the first time he can remember that a media reporter has been allowed inside one of their 18 institutions.

“We’re able to now devote some time to doing like what we’re doing today, bringing people out, showing them the facility [and] showing them what we actually do.”

In addition to doubling their training for correctional officers, the department received funds from the legislature to hire 100 more officers to address shortages over the next year. 

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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