Toned-Down Debate Over Nevada Prison Board Authority

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A compromise over the Nevada Prison Board's authority headed off expected debate Wednesday between the panel's chairman, Gov. Jim Gibbons, and another member irate over the governor's unilateral move to cut prison spending by $24 million.

Secretary of State Ross Miller, who wanted more of a Prison Board role in overseeing prisons, was backed by the panel's third member, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, in insisting on more information on the spending reductions.

But while Gibbons was outnumbered, Miller didn't press the point he had raised at a Jan. 8 board meeting - whether the governor could impose the cuts without a full board vote. That was followed immediately by Prison Director Howard Skolnik's detailed presentation of the prison cuts. Panel members also wound up agreeing to more frequent meetings.

The discussion among the board members ended with Gibbons saying, "We're all in agreement" - a face-saving result that made both him and Miller look cooperative instead of confrontational.

Wednesday's meeting didn't begin that way. Skolnik, in response to questions from Gibbons, started out with a worst-case scenario of what it would be like if the board had direct control over day-to-day prison operations.

Both Miller and Cortez Masto said they didn't recall any discussion at the Jan. 8 meeting of day-to-day control by the board. Miller added that state law and the Nevada Constitution provide for more than just an advisory role for the panel - especially when the governor's cuts include the closure of one prison that's part of a "system in crisis."

While previous boards may have opted for less of a role, Cortez Masto said the current members "want to be more involved" and there's authority for that. She added there's no need for legislation to spell out that increased involvement.

In other action, board members rejected an American Civil Liberties Union request to sign a consent decree to avoid litigation over medical care at Nevada's maximum-security Ely State Prison - but said discussions with the ACLU should continue.

That followed comments from Dr. Bruce Bannister, the prison system medical director, that inmate care may not be perfect but it meets constitutionally mandated requirements.

Gary Peck of the ACLU of Nevada said he was disappointed with the board's action and "vehemently" disagreed with Bannister's assessment.

The ACLU recently produced a report harshly critical of prison medical care. The document was written by Dr. William Noel, based on a review of medical records of 35 inmates. Noel described some of the treatment as "the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering, that I have ever encountered in the medical profession in my 35 years of practice."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)