Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) Director Charles Daniels announced Tuesday that the department is planning to reopen visitation for inmates starting on May 1.
The department originally suspended visitation on March 7, 2020, when there were growing concerns that COVID-19 could be spread to the state’s prison population. There have been 5,496 cases reported among inmates and staff, or more than a third of those two groups combined, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
As visitation resumes at NDOC facilities, visitors will be limited to those five years of age and older, and visitors will be limited to two per inmate, according to a spokesperson from the department.
The announcement came in a Board of Prison Commissioners meeting that was rife with frustration from the public, with people calling in to express dismay at the lack of transparency from the department about its reopening plans.
“We fully intend to start visitation on May 1, we're putting that information out there,” Daniels said. “We're also explaining to the inmates via postings and also putting information out to the general public on our social media sites.”
However, the agency has yet to release information about visitation. And while NDOC has not posted on its Twitter or Instagram since October, the department’s Facebook page does have one post that lists updates on how many offenders and staff have been vaccinated.
That lack of information led to complaints from the public during the meeting, including from Jodi Hocking, founder of Return Strong, an inmate advocacy group.
“We keep saying communication and accountability. Literally, there has not been a word that was released until a few days ago, and that has turned into a rumor gossip mill about what is true, what isn't true, what facility heard what,” Hocking said. “If it’s opening May 1, why does nobody know what’s going on yet?”
Gov. Steve Sisolak also expressed concern that the vaccination numbers were too low for both inmates and staff to reopen facilities for visitation.
During the meeting, prisons medical director Michael Minev said that of 2,474 active staff, 33 percent have received both doses of the Moderna vaccine and less than 2 percent of staff have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Minev also reported that out of nearly 11,000 state inmates, 11 percent have received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, 5 percent have received both doses of the Moderna vaccine and more than 6 percent have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“Those numbers are both extremely low on both the staff and the offender level,” Sisolak said. “It is my desire, and I expressed to Director Daniels, I’d like to open up visitation for our offenders, but I can’t do that when it’s only 5 percent have been fully vaccinated.”
Daniels said the department was working to encourage greater vaccination compliance amongst both staff and inmates, including through offering vaccinations to staff family members and having pharmacists visit with prisoners to explain vaccine safety. But he also expressed confidence that the department would be able to safely reopen for visitation by May.
“We will be able to start our visitation,” he said. “And as long as our safety precautions are in place, we believe we can do this successfully.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the department wrote in an email that all visitors must wear a face mask and will have to get their temperature taken before entry, and visitation will be held at a limited capacity. Visitors will also be administered a rapid COVID-19 test and must be negative for the virus before entry.
Members of the public calling into the meeting also expressed confusion over some of the vaccination numbers that were shared. Though Minev said that as of April 16, 565 offenders have at least initiated their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and 688 have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the department’s recent Facebook update states that as of April 13, 1,520 inmates have received at least their first dose — nearly 300 more doses administered than reported by Minev.
“All we want is transparency and truth. And it's only fair to everyone involved,” said a woman who identified herself only as Laura, a member of Return Strong.