Department says it needs to write a new regulation first
CARSON CITY–To test if a new law restricting deductions on inmate bank accounts was working properly at the beginning of the month, Jodi Hocking deposited $10 for her husband, an inmate with the Nevada Department of Corrections.
Since September 2020, Return Strong, a prisoners advocacy group Hocking started, along with the ACLU of Nevada and other groups have decried the department’s policy that raided accounts and took up to 80% from inmates.
During this year’s legislative session, Sen. Melanie Scheible proposed a fix in Senate Bill 22 to cap how much NDOC can deduct from inmates’ accounts. The bill, which went into effect July 1, limits deductions from friends and family at 25% and money earned through jobs at 50%.
But nearly two weeks after the law’s effective date, it hasn’t been implemented.
When Hocking spoke to her husband a day after she deposited the money, a day after the law was supposed to be implemented, she found out that instead of the 25% deduction limit for friends and family, 60% was deducted, and he only received $4.
“Not one person who has deposited since July 1 has reported a deduction of 25%,” said Nick Shepack, a policy and program associate with the ACLU of Nevada. “Since the bill went into effect July 1, any money over 25% should be returned to the incarcerated individual.”
In an email late Friday, Nevada Department of Corrections spokeswoman Teri Vance said the law can’t be implemented until the department drafts and approves an administrative regulation. She added the department sought guidance from the Attorney General’s office around implementation.
When asked about the implementation of SB 22, the Attorney General’s office referred questions to NDOC.
During months of hearings around SB 22, Scheible said she doesn’t remember NDOC mentioning that it would need to create an addition regulation to accompany the bill. She added that if it is an administrative regulation holding up implementation, she hopes there would be an urgency to get it done quickly.
Vance said NDOC is working to draft and then will “deliver, and post a Notice of Public Workshop subject to Open Meeting Law to conduct a workshop inviting feedback of the proposed regulation.” She didn’t indicate how long that process would take or answer follow-up questions on how much the department is currently deducting from inmates.
“I don’t see any logical reason that this wasn’t figured out by July 1,” Shepack said. “If we look at the timeline going back from September when they first instituted deductions, those deductions changed three times at a pretty rapid pace. We saw overnight the deductions go up.”
He added the ACLU has reached out to corrections officials without any response, and says the “lack of answers and the lack of communications is almost as concerning as the lack of compliance with the laws.”
“The lack of communications between the Nevada Department of Corrections, our organization, the legislators and the families is extremely concerning,” he said. “If there aren’t good answers as to why things aren’t rolling out when they legally should be, those things should be communicated. It would relieve a lot of stress, especially for the families of the incarcerated.”
Inmates rely on money deposited to their accounts to afford necessities including medical co-pays, extra food from the commissary, and hygiene items.
High deductions on their accounts limit what they can afford and puts the burden on friends and families making deposits to overcompensate.
When Hocking’s husband accidentally burned himself and needed treatment, Hocking had to put triple the amount of money in his account to make up for what NDOC would deduct.
The Nevada Current originally reported in September NDOC Director Charles Daniels increased deductions to 80% without warning or formal approval from the Board of Prison Commissioners.
During an October Board of Prison Commissioners meeting, he then sought to formally codify his decision through an administrative regulation.
Instead of authorizing his request, the board, which includes Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, voted to reverse Daniels’ action and temporarily suspend the policy.
In January, the board formally rescinded the policy but allowed NDOC to take up to half of inmates’ accounts.
“The governor asked them to revert to the old policy while they developed a new one and it only took them a matter of days to revert those charges,” Shepack said. “We know they are capable of changing the deductions in their computer systems in a reasonable amount of time.”
Further discussions on deductions were tabled by the board while SB 22 went through the legislative process.
Also while the bill was being debated, Return Strong lobbied for NDOC to create a family council, a concept Hocking said is implemented in other states and allows for better communications between families of the incarcerated and corrections officials.
“The goal of family councils is to improve communication and transparency,” she said. “What family councils usually do is get a voice at the table that allows families to have a voice in policies their loved ones are impacted by, like visitation policy, or how many phones are in a unit, or where we’re ordering commissary packages from.”
While many of the members of Return Strong are part of family councils, Hocking said it’s a separate group that includes a broader number of families.
After months and months of asking, NDOC emailed Hocking in April about setting up quarterly meetings with families.
Hocking said at a June 22 meeting, corrections officials said there wasn’t any issue implementing SB 22 and capping deductions come July 1.
“We specifically asked about it so any problems should have been brought up,” she said.
Out of an abundance of caution, Hocking asked friends and families to do a test deposit July 1.
“I had concerns,” she said. “I didn’t want people to throw $1,000 on somebody’s books and then turn around and the (incarcerated person) only gets $200.”
Other families, she said, saw the same issue with loved ones receiving higher deductions than outlined by the law.
SB 22 passed unanimously in both the Senate and the Assembly and was signed by Sisolak June 3.
“The time between when this bill passed and when it was implemented gave them plenty of time to get everything in order,” Shepack added. “I would imagine it would be much more of a headache for them to go back and correct the mistakes they made than it would have to have gotten this right July 1.”
The ACLU, he said, plans to bring up their concerns with lawmakers and the Board of Prison Commissioners.
“If it can’t be resolved there, then we would be passing off the information to our legal team who will do a legal assessment and consider legal action to force compliance with the law,” Shepack said. “We are hoping whatever is stalling them is internal and they are working on figuring it out and the money taken (after) July 1 is returned. It is never the goal to have to go a legal route. But if it comes down to it, it is something we will consider.”
Hocking is also reaching out to lawmakers and said the group plans to “make noise until the Board of Prison Commissioners meeting.”
“They are stealing people’s money,” she said
Good time on the way?
Concerns around SB 22 have made the groups worry about how other legislation will be implemented.
An inmate normally receives good time credits for working or taking part in various work, educational, rehabilitation and training programs that would reduce their maximum sentence by at least five days for each month they work or participate in the programs.
Because of Covid, programming was suspended and people haven’t been able to receive those credits.
Assembly Bill 241, sponsored by Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez, restored credits retroactively during the Covid state of emergency.
The law went into effect June 4 and the department has 60 days from implementation to compile a report for the Legislature and various state officials listing all the inmates who received credits.
“What we’re hearing from families and incarcerated individuals is some of the good time credits have shown up and a large majority of people should be eligible for the full 60 days in credits,” Shepack said. “I believe a lot of people are seeing numbers in the 30s. It’s unclear at this point whether or not they are implementing them and rolling them out and they’ll get to the 60 or if they are trying to give a lower number of credits.”
Hocking said at the June meeting with NDOC they were told credits would be allocated by August.
“I think everyone is concerned or at least on guard that they are going to pull something,” she added.
In an email Friday, Vance said “all AB241 credits will be entered by the end of today (Friday), because the monthly Sentence Calculations begin tonight. This included 122,897 credits touching 12,400 offenders.”