The American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, based in Washington, D.C., and Reno attorney Donald Evans filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on May 16th, 1994 against the governor of Nevada and officials of the Nevada Department of Corrections on behalf of inmates at Ely State Prison (ESP). Attorney Evans already represents a number of individual inmates at ESP.
The lawsuit names Governor Robert Miller, Nevada Department of Prison director Karl Sannicks, and E.K. McDaniel, warden of Ely State Prison, as defendants.
The suit alleges that "an atmosphere of terror and violence" pervades ESP, and results directly from improper training and supervision of correctional staff and failure by defendants to monitor, investigate and discipline misuse of force by staff. "Staff at ESP feel they are above the law," according to National Prison Project staff attorney Mark Lopez, "while the prisoners are without recourse." ESP is located in a remote area 300 miles from any major city, he noted, and, for most family members and attorneys, is accessible only by car. "Because of the staffs isolation," notes Lopez, "they are convinced that they need not obey the same laws the prisoners are subject to. We intend to enlighten them."
The excessive use of force alleged by the prisoners includes "frequent and systemic beatings, the intimidating use of dogs, use of taser guns, chemical gas, electrified batons (cattle prods), nove (electrified) shields, shotguns, and until recently, Ruger Mini-14 assault rifles." Prisoners are frequently beaten and kicked, while in chains or handcuffs, by correctional officers, who also conduct harassing cell and body cavity searches.
The lawsuit also challenges ESP's "shoot to wound" policy. In one case cited, two inmates were involved in "non-life threatening" fight. To break up the fight, four correctional officers shot twelve rounds, four of which came from a Mini-14 assault rifle. The two prisoners suffered extensive injuries from being shot. Inmates also report being shot at for failure to obey orders to disperse, or even for "stepping out of line" on the way to the dining room.
Challenging medical care at the prison, attorneys for the prisoners claim that it fails to meet the needs of the approximately 1000 prisoners. Prisoners are required to pay a fee to obtain medical care, and to purchase their own over-the-counter medications. They must also pay for personal hygiene items, reading and writing materials, postage and phone calls, although most receive no state pay. "Even winter clothing must be paid for by the prisoner," attorneys contend. "Prisoners are therefore forced by payment policies to make a choice between two necessities of life in the institution: medical care or hygienic/personal supplies."
The lawsuit also alleges that the special housing units (condemned men's unit, and disciplinary and administrative segregation) subject prisoners to a system of "terror, deprivation and isolation," and that the protective custody unit is densely populated because prison officials fail to adequately police the prison. Other issues include inadequate access to the law library, lack of proper winter clothing, and visitation hardships caused by prison lockdown policies.
Attorneys for the prisoners ask the court to remedy "the unlawful and unconstitutional conditions that deprive prisoners of basic human needs."
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