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James Dzurenda took over the Nevada Department of Corrections in April, and he has his hands full.
At least that's the sentiment from former director Howard Skolnik. Skolnik retired in 2011, and now doesn't hold back talking about the challenges of getting Nevada's legislative body to act on a struggling system.
And a handful Dzurenda did inherit, as Nevada's prisons have gained some notoriety over the years.
Last month, a former correctional officer with the High Desert State Prison was charged with involuntary manslaughter for the shooting death of an inmate in 2014.
The incident was one of a series of high-profile cases involving correctional officers' use of force, and led to Governor Brian Sandoval asking Greg Cox, who became director after Skolnik's retirement, to resign from the post in 2015. Interim director E.K. McDaniel had been in charge ever since.
Dzurenda has worked in corrections in Connecticut and New York for nearly 30 years, and was previously the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Corrections. He also has some experience with use-of-force policies, and drafted the policy currently in litigation for New York City.
Throughout history, however, Nevada has developed a unique prison culture. Huffington Post recently published an in-depth story about the use of guns inside Nevada's prisons following the High Desert State Prison incident, and the sub-headline says it all: "Guards inside prisons shouldn't have guns. That's pretty much an accepted fact. Except in Nevada - and the results are mayhem and death."
When interviewing writer Dana Liebelson, she told KNPR that Nevada's use of guns inside its prisons "is highly unusual." Skolnik said he agreed with her - to an extent.
"When I left, Nevada had the lowest rate of correction officer to inmates in the United States," Skolnik said. "I don't anticipate it's gotten any better. If anything, it's probably gotten worse."
Is Dzurenda possibly wondering what he's gotten himself into? Maybe. But he's not shying away from tough questions about the state of the Nevada's prisons. In fact, Dzurenda's interview with KNPR was a first - former director Cox and interim director McDaniel never responded to multiple requests for interviews for the past few years.
One of his first orders of business, he said, is stopping the use of birdshot (the pellet-style ammunition that killed Carlos Perez in 2014) at least temporarily.
"To me, I don't think it's necessary," Dzurenda said. "I'm not saying it's going to be eliminated, but I'm going to temporarily take it offline because I think there are better things out in the world today we can use to control inmate populations."
These things include non-lethal rounds of ammunition such as bean bags, rubber or plastic.
Dzurenda is more concerned, however, with programming inside correctional facilities - and considers an inmate's first day at prison what should be the first day of reintegration efforts.
"If you take a snapshot today, and you don't arrest anyone ever again, there's 13,500 inmates in the system right now and 88 percent of those have less than 20-year sentences," Dzurenda explained. "That means 12,000 of those offenders are released into our community pretty soon - that's if you arrest no one.
"No matter how we feel about an offender, they are going back into the community. If we don't funnel resources to do better for them, we're just going to re-victimize our communities."
As Skolnik noted, however, getting the money and resources together to have proper programming for inmates is no walk in the park. So how could Dzurenda do what his predecessors could not?
Constituents. Dzurenda may not be a political candidate - but getting the constituents to care about the people being put back into their communities might be able to get the ears of their represented politicians.
"You can't expect an inmate to come in our front door and leave any better than he or she is if we did nothing. And that feels like what we're doing now."
James Dzurenda, director, Nevada Department of Corrections
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