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DOC Director On State Of Nevada's Prisons

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval ordered an audit of the Department of Corrections when the state had to shell out $15.5 million in overtime costs last year. 

That audit found no gross wrongdoing on the part of the department that oversees 14,000 prisoners. They're understaffed to serve such a large population. 

Most of these prisons are located in rural areas out of sight and out of mind for many people in the surrounding cities. 

But James Dzurenda is the man in charge of these people and the staff who make up the Nevada Department of Corrections. 

Dzurenda said after the audit the department found one of the biggest problems was the number of officers being sent to the hospital with inmates.

Because of the aging prison population, the number of inmates needing overnight hospital stays has increased, Dzurenda said. Under the old policy, two corrections officers were sent with each inmate, which meant six officers on overtime for a 24-hour period.

Dzurenda and officials at the department looked at the policy of other corrections departments around the country and at the county jail and found they used far fewer officers.

Now, there is one officer for every four inmates with another officer being assigned to rove between those inmates. However, healthcare facilities can request extra officers if they feel that the inmate needing care is a high-risk offender.

Dzurenda said since the policy went into place in January the department has saved around $6 million on overtime costs.

While the department has addressed that part of overtime problem, staff levels are still not where they need to be. He said new regulations from the state and federal level required positions to be created in prisons, but instead of hiring new people, the department just moved corrections officers around.

"So we weren't creating new positions, but pulling that staff created overtime for those positions they were supposed to do," he said.

And finding enough officers is not easy. Most of the prisons are in rural areas and while the pay is competitive, Dzurenda said the state pulls more for pensions and medical benefits than any other state he has seen.

While staffing remains a problem, Dzurenda says other efforts to reform the state's prison system are working.

Since he started two years ago, Dzurenda has focused on putting in programs that are proven to help cut down on recidivism. 

"When I first came into the state, we weren't doing evidence-based programs," he said, "We were just doing programs that we thought were helping and we never showed any data that it actually did anything for anybody."

He said the programs the prisons use now to treat mental health issues, addictions, and violent behavior are tracked to make sure they are changing inmates.

The prison system is working with UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno to track those data points.

Beyond programs to address any underlying problems, the Department of Corrections is trying to do a better job of making sure inmates can get a job when they get out.

It is working with the College of Southern Nevada on an online college course program. It is also pushing inmates to get their GED. Druzenda said studies show that a GED can make a major difference for success outside of prison. And, the prison system has worked with trade unions to create a heavy equipment training program. Inmates can use simulators to learn how to use backhoes, earthmovers and other heavy construction equipment.

"So now we're training inmates by simulators to do backhoes, to use all this equipment that they can't get people to work for," he said.

Dzurenda points to crime statistics in Las Vegas as proof that changes in the prison system are working.

"We've already seen just in Las Vegas since June a decrease of 26 percent of felony arrests in the city," he said, "It doesn't feel like that to residents because the felony arrests are more violent today. So, it feels like there is a lot more of them, but it's not."

He said the system has seen a decrease in the number of offenders it has taken in since June of last year.

Dzurenda said it is not just the changes at the prisons that have improved crime rates because another important part of the changes he's put in place is improving communication between the prison system and the community.

When a prisoner is released, the department now works closely with police and other agencies to make sure the prisoner has the services he or she needs to return to society and stay out of prison.

He said new electronic medical records allow medical facilities know what treatments and medications the former inmate received in prison and know what medications might have made them violent.

"The community needs to know what meds these inmates were on," he said, "They need to know which ones made them violent in the past... If you go into the community and you don't have that contact with the community and those resources those communities will probably put them back on those meds that made the offender violent."

James Dzurenda, director, Nevada Department of Corrections 

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.