New Nev. law curbs use of solitary confinement

The new law requires solitary confinement to “only be used as a last resort, in the least restrictive manner and for the shortest period of time safely possible”

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Nevada prison and jail inmates solitary confinement is capped at 15 consecutive days and they cannot be put in solitary within 90 days of their release.

Photo/Nevada Department of Corrections

Hillary Davis
Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS — A new law curbing the use of solitary confinement in Nevada jails and prisons went into effect Monday.

It’s one of 85 new laws from last year’s legislative session that went live at the start of the new year, and a reform state leaders have been trying to pass for years.

“This type of segregation of prisoners is especially detrimental to those with mental illnesses and we’re not doing any justice ... by forcing them into this kind of a situation, but we are also virtually ensuring that their mental health will suffer from this treatment,” said state Sen. Pat Spearman, D- North Las Vegas, at an April committee hearing for the law that started as Senate Bill 307.

The law requires solitary confinement — when inmates are isolated in single-person cells away from the general prison population for at least 22 hours a day — to “only be used as a last resort, in the least restrictive manner and for the shortest period of time safely possible.”

With certain exceptions, inmates will now be capped at 15 consecutive days of solitary, and they cannot be put in solitary within 90 days of their release from the prison. It was previously a 30-day maximum.

Inmates with “serious mental illness or other significant mental impairment” are also not to be isolated unless a health care provider orders it.

Spearman said she started working on reforms in 2017 because it was dangerous and cruel to the inmates. Nevada Department of Corrections Director James Dzurenda supported her in crafting the reforms and carving out guidelines and exceptions.

Nick Shepack, a steering committee member of the national Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement and board chair of the Nevada prisoner rights advocacy group Return Strong, told lawmakers that inmates will sit in solitary while awaiting disciplinary hearings that can lead to solitary as punishment for an infraction within the institution.

They may also get consecutive sanctions, putting them well past the limit for days in isolation.

Inmates may stay in isolation longer than 15 days if it’s a medical or safety necessity or if they refuse to leave.

The law dictates that multidisciplinary teams will review extended stays as well as develop individualized plans for offenders before they are let out of isolation.

In another win this session for the incarcerated, pretrial inmates who are facing misdemeanors, first felonies or who are serving time for a misdemeanor conviction but have no prior felonies are getting accommodations to cast their ballots from county or city jails.

These inmates haven’t lost their right to vote, and while no prior laws prohibited them from registering or voting while incarcerated, they simply might not have had access.

This new law, springing from Assembly Bill 286, doesn’t change eligibility but brings the polls, drop boxes and voter registration forms to a specific group of people who were already legally eligible voters.

It’s for those who haven’t been found guilty of a serious crime that would strip their right to vote.

Bill sponsor Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, D- Las Vegas, said in an April hearing that the bill recognized a constitutional right and “that we as Nevadans preserve the sentiment of innocent until proven guilty, recognizing that some may never be convicted. We are simply ensuring that eligible electors have the ability to vote in the same early, special, primary or general elections that they would have had the opportunity to vote in had they not been temporarily incarcerated.”

Miller said many Nevada jails, including facilities in Clark County, are already coordinating inmate voting, and the new law codifies it.

The law requires jails to establish policies on inmate voting and registration; provide inmates a reasonable amount of privacy to vote and pens to mark their paper ballots; allow the county clerk to establish a process for collecting mail ballots from the jail; and allow inmates, under certain circumstances, to correct any signature defects, as any other voter would.

Emily Persaud-Zamora, executive director of the progressive civil engagement organization Silver State Voices, said eligible voters retain their right to vote no matter where they may be.

“We believe that every voter in jail should not only have access to their constitutional right but should also be made aware of it,” she said.

hillary.davis@gmgvegas.com / 702-990-8959 / @HillaryLVSun

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