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Nevada: Big change after state takes back CCA prison.

November 08, 2004
Las Vegas Review-Journal

JANE ANN MORRISON: In a world of four walls and life sentences, little things do make a difference

A salad bar. Eye contact. Written rules. Being called by your name.

Four things that sound so simple.

Yet inmates at the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Center in North Las Vegas said these changes improved their lot behind bars since the state took back control of the prison Oct. 1.

"We're treated differently," said LaTisha Babb, 25, who has been in custody in Nevada for seven years. She's serving two life sentences and two six-to-15-year sentences for the murder and robbery of a cabdriver in Reno.

Most of her time as a prisoner has been under the administration of Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit private company contracted to run the 500-bed women's prison for seven years.

Babb already has seen changes. "There's eye contact, the guards know your name, the food and medical is better, and if you have a medical problem, they don't brush you off."

One way Department of Corrections Director Jackie Crawford measures improvements is the decrease in the number of women trying to injure themselves. In October, only two women tried to hurt themselves. Under CCA, she estimated about 20 women a month were involved in self-harm incidents.

"With women, there are more mental health issues, more programs to control women's behavior and less violence," Crawford said.

Several inmates said the food had improved. There had been complaints about the lack of fruits, vegetables and milk available to women. Now, there's a salad bar, which Crawford said is both healthier and less expensive.

Twice, Crawford has invited the media to visit the prison, first in June after the decision was made to take back control of the prison from CCA, and again in October.

A third visit is planned for June to show off physical changes, including murals, more color and new uniforms. Other more substantive changes are implemented or in progress: more jobs inside and outside the prison, more mental health programs, more chances for education, more substance abuse programs, and longer visitation hours to help establish stronger family ties.

CCA was paid $49.22 a day per inmate, and company officials said that was unprofitable because of rising health care costs. CCA didn't care whether the women ended up back behind bars because it didn't matter to the company's bottom line.

The state estimates spending $62.33 per day for each inmate.

Crawford needs to show legislators who control her department's funding that by spending an additional $13 a day for each woman, the state can do more for women prisoners while they are inside, better prepare them for release and try to prevent recidivism.

In Nevada, where legislators and judges pride themselves on being "tough on crime," the sympathy factor for women who are murderers, robbers, drug dealers and drunken drivers is limited.

And the women know it.

Michelle Williams, 37, is in her 14th year of a 10-to-life sentence involving domestic violence. She started to cry when someone mentioned that since the switch there have been 30 calls from community groups offering to help the women. "That was very touching, and I was overwhelmed," she said, when asked about her tears.

Sharon Fletcher, 48, serving 10 to life for second-degree murder of a boyfriend, pointed to cells brightened by lavender doors.

Inside, the clean room contained two bunk beds against one wall and a toilet and a sink against the other. Luxury and privacy are not commodities here.

"There's no favoritism, and rules are posted," said Fletcher, a mother of four.

For the first time in seven years, each inmate received a notebook spelling out policies and rules.

"They may not like the rules, but they know what they are," Crawford said Friday, reminding me of my childhood relationship with my father.

One new prison program caught my eye, Puppies Up for Parole, where dogs that haven't been adopted will be groomed and socialized by prisoners, so they might have a second chance at adoption.

Crawford is asking Gov. Kenny Guinn to put $18 million in his budget for a 250-bed re-entry center for women who, like the Puppies Up for Parole, hope for a second chance.

The men will have one. Casa Grande. The Big House.

Surely, some of these women deserve another chance.

Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

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