Nevada Director of Corrections Howard Skolnik took assaults from all sides at Tuesday’s prison commission meeting as guards called for his termination over the budget and Secretary of State Ross Miller demanded to know how inmates ended up working for a voter registration drive now under investigation for voter fraud.
Dennis Mallory and Kevin Ranft of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees charged that the prisons are criminally understaffed, endangering guards and inmates alike. Ranft said employee morale is at an all-time low amid retaliation from administrators and increasingly dangerous conditions.
“We have no choice but to call for his resignation,” said Mallory.
Ranft said the union will ask for a grand jury investigation of the situation in Nevada’s prison system.
Skolnik said after the meeting he understands the frustration and concerns of his officers.
“This problem has been festering for 30 years and finally, with this budget reduction, has just gotten to be more than they can stand,” he said.
The commission took no action because it has no authority to remove Skolnik. The director of corrections reports directly to Gov. Jim Gibbons, who chairs the commission. However, Gibbons was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
Ranft, after the meeting, said the problem is the system needs more revenue to hire more guards and provide the kinds of programs that make the prison system safer and better for all who have to deal with it.
And that, Skolnik made it clear, is beyond his authority. He said his predecessor, Glen Whorton, asked for the increased staffing ratio they all believe is needed and was turned down during the budget process.
Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto asked whether the prisons can take the 14 percent cuts mandated by the governor and not endanger staff and inmates. Skolnik said as long as inmate numbers don’t suddenly skyrocket, the department can survive this reduction.
“We can maintain status quo at 14 percent,” he said. “But I don’t believe we can absorb anything beyond that. Fourteen is where I have to draw a line in the sand.”
He said the inmate union leaders “may get their wish” if he is called on to make deeper cuts.
“I don’t want to go to funerals,” he said.
Miller called for a complete investigation into the how the company ACORN, which is being investigated in several states including Nevada for allegedly creating phony voter registration cards, wound up with 59 Nevada inmate employees. By law, ex-felons and inmates are prohibited from any work that gives them access to personal or identification information about citizens.
Skolnik said it was an error that his staff and the contractor that helps find inmate jobs, Choices Group, didn’t find out what ACORN was hiring the inmates to do. He said it was believed they would be conducting surveys, not voter registrations.
When the problem was discovered July 31, he said, the relationship was terminated immediately and the inmates pulled out of their jobs with ACORN.
He also said the department’s investigation into the matter would be finished in about a week. When asked about the registration cards and how many were phony, he said no inmate has been tied to a phony voter registration at this point. He said the employees fired by ACORN were not inmates.
The voter registration investigation, he told Miller and Masto, was being handled by Miller’s investigative staff.
But Miller followed the meeting with a press release demanding a full investigation into the issue saying he is concerned about the potential for identity theft by those inmates.
“The idea of having people who have been convicted of identity theft or related crimes being paid to collect personal information from private citizens is beyond belief,” he said.