Nevada newspaper tallies at least 55 inmate COVID-19 deaths

LAS VEGAS (AP) — At least 55 Nevada prison inmates have died after contracting COVID-19 during the pandemic that began more than a year ago, according to a newspaper report.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal compared records from coroners around the state with March 29 data provided by the Department of Corrections.

It found the state Department of Health and Human Services has tallied deaths of 53 inmates and three department employees and was reviewing the prison system’s other two reported cases.

Prison officials didn’t identify inmates who died after testing positive for the coronavirus, citing medical information confidentiality.

“While we all strive to protect the health of offenders and staff, cases have been identified in NDOC facilities and, unfortunately, we have lost both offenders and staff to this virus,” the department said in the statement. “Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of all those who have died from COVID-19.”

Nevada has about 10,000 offenders housed in eight prisons, 10 camps where inmates work on conservation projects, a restitution center and the Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Facility in Las Vegas, which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America.

The Review-Journal identified 39 inmates who died by name. All were men.

Those not identified were either considered pending cases — because an agency had not yet independently confirmed and cataloged their cause and manner of death — or their cases occurred in Pershing County, where the sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for information. Lovelock Correctional Center is in Pershing County.

Northern Nevada Correctional Center has had the most prisoners die after testing positive: 30, according to Corrections Department data. The prison in Carson City has the system’s main in-person medical unit.

Sarah Hawkins, a Clark County public defender and president of Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, told the Review-Journal the prison system has “stonewalled” those seeking answers throughout the pandemic. She said activists suspect more than 55 prisoners have died of the virus.

Hawkins termed deaths related to the virus preventable, and called prison virus outbreaks “a result of the Nevada Department of Corrections’ failure to act.”

“What we have been hearing from NDOC does not match what we’re hearing from folks who are actually in custody,” she said. “We are incredibly disheartened, and we feel really helpless because we can’t get the information we need to challenge that.”

The Nevada Sentencing Commission twice declined to recommend that Gov. Steve Sisolak depopulate prisons to minimize the spread of coronavirus.

The Nevada Supreme Court last May also denied a petition to release vulnerable and elderly prisoners because of the virus.

State data as of Friday showed 4,506 coronavirus cases among state prisoners since the start of the pandemic and 981 cases among prison employees.