Holes under fences, aging buildings -- and a need for volunteer organizations' help

Nevada prison director returns to fix staffing, re-entry problems

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Suicides, infrastructure among challenges for NDOC’s James Dzurenda

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — From an escaped prisoner to a severe staffing shortage, the director of the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) might have inherited quite a mess.

It’s the second time around for James Dzurenda, who was NDOC director when Brian Sandoval was governor, is back now, appointed by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo.

The previous NDOC director, Charles Daniels, never sat down with us for an interview while he held the job. Dzurenda has been back on the job for about a month, and he promises the department will be more transparent.

Vanessa Murphy: When you were not holding this job and you saw what was unfolding here, what were your thoughts?

James Dzurenda: The system is actually failing … that it has to … someone has to be able to correct the system that was out there.

Murphy: What is the first crisis you’ve had to deal with?

Dzurenda: It’s the staffing. I think the whole staffing is the whole crisis. And also with the suicides — might there might be a correlation between the staffing and the suicides that were happening.

The 8 News Now Investigators uncovered several inmate suicides over the past year, including two within two days at High Desert State Prison. Dzurenda says in addition to addressing staffing levels — a vacancy rate as high as 50% in some prisons — he’s also trying to be proactive rather than reactive.

“Trying to come up with solutions to see what went wrong or what can we do better in the future so we could prevent this or have … be more on top of it, so we don’t have the suicide rates as we go on,” he said.

Dzurenda said he’s also trying to address infrastructure — like fences. At Southern Desert Correctional Center, where a convicted killer escaped and went missing for a few days before anyone noticed last September, some fences have already been fixed. Water had carved out holes under fences as it ran down the mountain.

And why did the escape go undetected for so long?

“To me, it was all basic training that was never followed, really,” Dzurenda said. “If somebody did escape from there, there should never be a time where 24 hours at a minimum would never get by if you follow by basic procedures.”

Dzurenda said he wants to try to bring volunteers inside prisons. And he wants to reach out to ex-offenders who have successfully made the transition out of prison.

He stresses the importance of re-entry programs, keeping people who are released from prison from committing crimes again. He said the programs he had in place when he left were pretty much gone when he returned.

Dzurenda said beds are available inside Nevada’s prisons. The issue isn’t space — it’s staffing.

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