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Interview: Rebranding Nevada's Department Of Corrections

Courtesy/Nevada Department of Corrections

The Nevada Department of Corrections is under new leadership. James Dzurenda's  been director for four months and came at the heels of a probe into the use of force by corrections officers and the resignation of former Director Greg Cox. Dzurenda's the former head of New York City's jail system. He discussed his policing credo with our reporter, Marcus Lavergne.

ML: What were you involved with as a law enforcer on the East Coast?

Dzurenda: I started off as a correction officer in one of the jails in 1987 in Bridgeport, Connecticut and worked my way up through supervision ranks to warden.

I was warden at several different facilities in Connecticut all the way from maximum security to pre-release facilities.

After that, I was retiring from Connecticut after doing 26 years, and, the same time, New York City offered me a position to run the jail system. I ran the operations of all the jails in all the five boroughs, Rikers Island and the district courthouses. I was given a budget in NYC of just under $3 billion, which is pretty much the same or maybe even more than the entire budget for the state of Nevada.

ML: What philosophy are you trying to instill in the department?

Dzurenda: When you take over any agency or any company, the first thing you do is look at the mission and vision of the agency. If I remember correctly it was one line for the mission of the agency that, ‘we watch, detain and secure offenders assigned to us by the courts.’ When you look at that, that’s more of an old school prison mentality… that we warehouse inmates.

That’s not our business. Today’s business is that we go into front-end programming – provide best-practice programming to those offenders to give them tools to change their behaviors and addictions.

In the State of Nevada, when you look at our system, which is 13,500 inmates, 8% of those offenders are going home between one year and eighteen years. When these offenders get out, our goal is that that behavior changes and giving [sic] the inmates those tools so that the residents in the community are less victimized.

Over a long term, you’ll start seeing a reduction in the prison population. What does that mean to us the state? Well first of all, less victimization in the community… it also means we can reduce our population beds, which to me, that’s a lot of money. So, you start having this money that you can invest in other things in the community like the school system.

ML: Who are you trying to bring into the department?

Dzurenda: Obviously, you want the best employees that you can find and the best people putting in for these [jobs].

What I’m looking at now is ways to even utilize the college systems and the universities. If they can provide us staff that graduate our post academy, which is the police officers training academy and do X amount of time, whatever that can, be as a correction officer, they can be given credits toward an associate’s degree.

So, those colleges will benefit with having [an] increase of students with continuing education, and it will also help with education of our new employees and will help us to keep employees because if they leave, they don’t get the credit toward the colleges.

ML: With your emphasis on educating people, how do you take the national situation, the current black lives matter movement, the current situation between law enforcement and the black community and work that into your policy making?

Dzurenda: You know when you talk about activists, when you talk about protests, if you don’t listen to what they’re trying to say it’s really a disservice to your agency, because whether it’s true or not, there’re perceptions out there about what you do.

If I’m sending messages out there that are being misinterpreted or that people are seeing it in a different light, I have to redo the way I network, the way I start presenting what I’m doing so that that the community and those out there really know where I’m leading the agency.

There’s always a learning process for anybody. 

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