Nevada prison escape, resignation raises political stakes
RENO, Nev. (AP) — The head of Nevada’s Department of Corrections resigned Friday at the request of Gov. Steve Sisolak in the wake of a prison escape by a convicted bombmaker that went unnoticed for four days.
The escapee, who was serving a life sentence for a 2007 murder in an explosion outside a Las Vegas Strip resort, was captured Wednesday night.
Sisolak said in a statement Friday he “requested and received Nevada Department of Corrections Director Charles Daniels’ resignation, effective immediately.” Six other officers were placed on administrative leave.
The embarrassing chain of events has put a spotlight on chronic staffing shortages at prisons throughout Nevada against a high-stakes political backdrop in the western battleground state a month before the November elections.
Joe Lombardo, the Republican sheriff in Las Vegas who’s running against the Democratic governor, says authorities were lucky to catch the convicted killer after he got a “four-day head start.”
Leaders of the union representing state prison workers say it underscores the need for immediate action to ensure their safety as well as that of the general public.
Sisolak and Lombardo are scheduled to face off in a debate in Las Vegas on Sunday — five years after they worked together to raise millions of dollars for victims of the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip that left 58 dead and more than 850 injured.
Porfirio Duarte-Herrera, 42, escaped from the Southern Desert Correctional Center outside Las Vegas Sept. 23. State corrections officials didn’t realize until Tuesday he was not at the medium-security facility.
A tip led to his capture at a transit center in Las Vegas on Wednesday night as he prepared to board a bus out of town.
Lombardo said Thursday at a joint news conference with an FBI special agent and the head of the U.S. Marshals Service for Nevada that they were fortunate to catch up with Duarte-Herrera so quickly given he had a “four-day head start.”
“The policies and procedure and all the failures that occurred (last) Friday and up to Tuesday need to be addressed,” Lombardo said.
“Infrastructure issues and prison system staffing issues, the ability for this individual to do it — from what I’ve been told — as simply as he did it is a grave concern to me and the entire law enforcement community and the community as a whole,” he said.
The Department of Corrections has been silent on the circumstances of the escape from the beginning and officials declined to attend Thursday’s news conference. Efforts to reach Daniels on Friday weren’t immediately successful. No personal phone number is listed for him and department spokespeople did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking assistance reaching Daniels for comment.
A former corrections officer at the prison who leads an advocacy group for correctional officers told Fox5Vegas that Duarte-Herrera made a dummy and used battery acid to break down the window frame of his jail cell. The guard tower that would have had eyes on the unit he escaped from was unmanned and had been for a couple of years, said Paul Lunkwitz, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Nevada C.O. Lodge 21 in North Las Vegas.
The head of the local union representing state correctional officers called Friday for an immediate response to prison workers’ ongoing concerns about chronic understaffing and prioritize their safety.
“NDOC leadership has cut corners that have led to dangerous incidents, including removing guards at towers that maintain a constant visual on the outer fence lines that could have prevented the escape of a convicted murder,” AFSCME Local 4041 President Harry Schiffman said.
Criticism of the handling of the escape began as soon as Sisolak first announced Tuesday that Duarte-Herrera had escaped Sept. 23, that the inmate’s absence hadn’t been detected until a head count at the prison Tuesday morning and that he was ordering an investigation.
Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican who serves on Nevada’s three-member Board of Prison Commissioners with Sisolak and Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford, said she was “outraged” the department didn’t notify commissioners of the escape.
Sisolak ordered the corrections department to investigate the escape “to ensure any lapses in protocol are immediately addressed.”
Daniels’ resignation comes after a tumultuous month at the Southern Desert Correctional Facility and another Clark County prison, High Desert State Prison, that led many to call for his ouster.
Earlier this month, a group of medical and mental health staff at the two prisons wrote to Sisolak describing “increasingly erratic, hostile and abusive” behavior from the prison director.
In staff meetings after two inmates died by suicide within seven hours of each other in the same unit at High Desert, Daniels proceeded to “berate the medical and mental health staff,” which the letter-writers called the beginning of “a witch hunt and blame game.” At the second meeting, Daniels allegedly showed up an hour late and “screamed at the staff present in the room and pounded his fist on the podium,” shouting that “no one here is special, and everyone is replaceable.”
The Department of Corrections did not respond to those allegations, which were first reported by KLAS-TV in Las Vegas.
Sisolak said Friday that his office will work closely with the department “to ensure the safety and well-being of both NDOC employees and inmates.”
“Corrections institutions across the nation are facing severe staffing shortages and together, we are working with NDOC to look at innovative ways to increase recruitment at all facilities within this state,” he said.
Eds: This story corrects an earlier version that said the Fraternal Order of Police Nevada C.O. is a union that represents correctional officers. It is an advocacy group.
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Stern on Twitter: @gabestern326.