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Nevada State Dual Settlements for Inmate Firefighters and Sonjia Mack Strip-search Incident

17 Nov 2023, Jail News, by

The State of Nevada approves settlements for inmate firefighters and Sonjia Mack, strip-searched in a Nevada prison.

Nevada State Dual Settlements for Inmate Firefighters and Sonjia Mack Strip-search Incident - Inmate Lookup

This Tuesday, at a Nevada Board of Examiners meeting, Gov. Joe Lombardo, Attorney General Aaron Ford, and Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar approved the two settlements for inmate firefighters and Sonjia Mack. State law requires board approval for tort settlements over $100,000.

Nevada agreed to pay $340,000 to a group of inmate firefighters who said they were humiliated and denied medical care after inadequate equipment caused second-degree burns and socks melting to their feet.

Sonjia Mack, a woman who was strip-searched and interviewed by correctional personnel while visiting her lover at High Desert State Prison, was also approved for a $126,500 payout.

The state attorney general advised the board to settle both cases to avoid litigation and adverse rulings.

Eight former and current inmates injured in April 2021 while working for the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) and Division of Forestry’s wildland firefighting program will receive a $340,000 settlement.

The eighth plaintiff was a man from Three Lakes Valley Conservation Camp, and seven were women from Jean Conservation Camp. In April 2021, inmate firefighters were sent to Laughlin to “clear out red-hot embers, churn burning soil, and rip out tree stumps” after a massive wildfire. The lawsuit claims supervisors “mocked and ignored” them when they reported the ground was still flaming and burning their feet.

A boot sole of an inmate firefighter came off, and a supervisor allegedly told the inmate to duct tape it and continue working. Another supervisor allegedly told a tearful inmate firefighter she could “keep crying as long as you keep working.” A third supervisor reportedly stated he had no interest in seeing the injured feet because of the required paperwork about the injury he had to file.

Even when forestry and correctional staff saw they were hurt, the women said they were not treated that day. Some were so severely injured that they had to crawl on their hands and knees to shower and use the restrooms. The camp nurse assessed the women’s injuries the day after other inmates reported their conditions.

The Division of Forestry would provide “renewed, expanded training” to its supervisors and inmate firefighters on inspections, equipment standards, and employee misbehavior disciplinary procedures as part of the settlement.

The lawsuit referenced a Nevada Inspector General investigation that found the detainees were “academically trained” on their tasks but “never involved or trained in the practical application.” The investigation showed the detainees’ state-issued boots were “in absolute horrible condition”—the oldest being from 2013 and the newest from 2018.

The settlement requires NDOC to prevent retaliation against inmate firefighters who disclose work-related injuries. A woman inmate said she was frightened of being moved to a higher-security institution if she insisted on medical attention.

The Jean Conservation Camp and inmate firefighting program have been criticized. Inmates earn $24 a day, below the minimum wage. It may be a new version of post-Civil War convict leasing, say politicians.

In their now-settled lawsuit, the inmate firefighters were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. The settlement document states that three of the eight plaintiffs are no longer behind bars. Out of the five plaintiffs who are still behind bars, three are held at various NDOC institutions, one is in transitional housing, and one is still detained at Jean Conservation Camp. Amounts awarded to each plaintiff range from $24,200 to $48,400.

The ACLU of Nevada Legal Director, Chris Peterson, stated that they filed the case to ensure no firefighter would be treated similarly. He further emphasized that the changes in policies and training mandated by the settlement agreement signify progress for the state of Nevada. He also stated that they will continue to fight slavery in all of its forms in the state of Nevada, emphasizing that people who are incarcerated are not disposable laborers.

In another case, Nevada’s Board of Examiners authorized the second compensation for a woman who was strip-searched and interrogated in 2017 while visiting her incarcerated boyfriend.

In her lawsuit, Sonjia Mack claimed that when trying to see her incarcerated boyfriend at High Desert State Prison, NDOC personnel conducted a strip search on her without her consent, and she was not allowed to leave the facility. No contraband was found on Mack, yet NDOC denied her visitation that day and suspended it for an unspecified period.

After Mack initially filed her petition in 2018, the Nevada Supreme Court issued a decision that some have referred to as a landmark decision. The Nevada Supreme Court decided in December 2022 that government officials are not immune from lawsuits for civil rights breaches under the state constitution.