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Is Poor Medical Care Killing Nevada's Prison Inmates?

The number of inmate deaths at Nevada prisons is raising questions.

In Nevada’s state prisons, four inmates die every month, on average.

But in May and June of this year, 12 inmates died. And in the last year, the number who died in Nevada prisons is just under 50.

That compares to an average of 31 deaths per year in Nevada prisons from 2001 to 2012, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Nevada’s prisons aren’t places we hear much about. Media access is severely restricted. Family members don’t always want to talk about a brother or father in prison. And, frankly, many Nevadans don’t care – out of sight, out of mind.

But some states, such as Ohio, are being sued for substandard prison medical care. And it’s no secret that many Nevada inmates die from medical conditions.

Between 2001 and 2012, 80 percent of 379 prison deaths were due to medical problems.

John Witherow knows firsthand how difficult it is to get medical care in Nevada prisons. He spent 26 years in prisons across the state, after being convicted of attempted robbery in Reno. His sentence included a habitual criminal enhancement, which adds years to the sentence of people who have been convicted of another crime.

“Getting medical care within the NDOC is an extremely difficult job,” Witherow told KNPR’s State of Nevada, “The few instances I had with the medical department were terrible.”

Witherow is now with the prison advocacy group Nevada CURE, which stands for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.

He said there was a doctor at Ely State Prison that actually discouraged inmates from seeking medical care by insisting they have a rectal exam before he would treat them for any other ailment, even if their complaint had nothing to do with the exam.

Witherow said it was a way to deny medical care to inmates and get them out of his office.

He also said the Department of Corrections and state lawmakers are not testing inmates for hepatitis C, despite estimates that put the infection rate at between 12 and 33 percent for inmates.

“They don’t want to test because they don’t want to know how many prisoners have hepatitis C because of the costs involved in providing medical care,” Witherow said.

State Senator Richard “Tick” Segerblom said while the issue did not come up in this year’s legislative session, he expects it will very soon.

“I do feel in the coming years prison reform is going to be our next big issue,” Segerblom said.

He said the state needs to focus on better medical treatment for inmates and reducing sentences.

“We need to figure out a way to get people out of prison earlier, if we can,” Segerblom explained, “We have this theory that we’ve put ‘em in there, lock ‘em up and leave ‘em and that’s costing all of us a ton of money and it’s not helping society.”

The state senator also pointed out that if Nevada doesn’t reform its prison system, the American Civil Liberties Union could sue, forcing the state to pay court penalties on top of reform costs.

Amy Rose is the legal director for ACLU of Nevada. She said a lawsuit is a possibility.

“It is something we could be involved in, in the future, if the opportunity presents itself,” Rose said.

According to Rose, the ACLU of Nevada sued Ely State Prison in 2008 for not providing adequate medical care and settled the suit in 2010. The prison was supposed to provide care in a timely manner, provide a nurse to quickly take prisoner medical complaints along with other improvements. However, she said those changes don’t seem to have been permanent.

“We have a responsibility as a society if we want to put someone in prison to pay for their medical care,” she said. “We have a responsibility and we have a constitutional requirement to take care of their medical care and ensure their medical needs are properly treated.”

John Webster with National Prison Consultants said many of the problems prison systems are dealing with are the result of ‘tough on crime’ stances from 30 or 40 years ago.

“We’re still dealing with the hangover, so to speak, of prison policies and sentencing policies of the 70s and 80s, and in some states the 90s, where we believed in Three-Strikes type laws,” Webster said. “The people we gave life sentences to, or 50, 60 year sentences to, when they were in their 30s are now getting older and we all know geriatric care is very, very expensive.”

He said most people, unless they have a family member in the prison system, have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude toward prison.

What people don’t realize, Webster said, is how much those policies are costing them.

“If we want to have a tough-on-crime policy in a particular state, we need to realize that it will cost a lot of money and people will have to pay more taxes,” he said.

Nationally, the average cost of housing a prisoner for a year is $35,000. In Nevada, it is $20,000. Webster said it doesn’t mean Nevada is doing a great job of cost cutting, “I think it’s because Nevada is not providing that which is constitutionally required, which is health care.”

Webster believes the stigma associated with going to prison and no politician wanting to look “soft on crime” will keep true prison reform from every happening in this country.

“People just don’t care,” Webster said. 

Behind Prison Bars - Medical Treatment

NV State Sen. Richard “Tick” SegerblomJohn Witherow, Vice Chair,  executive committee of Nevada CURE, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of ErrantsJohn Webster, National Prison Consultants;  Amy Rose, legal director, ACLU of Nevada 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)