Lockdown Hell

An article from Las Vegas Sun, from Sept. 2008:

Lockdown hell
That’s the reputation that isolating dangerous federal inmates for their own protection has earned North Las Vegas jail

Steve Marcus
A building crew leaves the Male Closed Custody Unit at the North Las Vegas Detention Center. Several alleged members of the Aryan Warriors, a violent white supremacist prison gang, are housed at the center.)

By Jeff German (contact)

Fri, Sep 19, 2008 (2 a.m.)
Click to enlarge photo

Steve Marcus

Officer Tyrone Bentley unlocks food flaps in cell doors of the North Las Vegas Detention Center, which houses dangerous federal detainees.
Sun Archives

Tony Morgan has been in and out of Nevada’s toughest prisons since 1988, but he says none of them treated him worse than his current house of incarceration, the North Las Vegas jail — where he is in protective custody.

For up to four months at a time, Morgan has been spending 23 hours a day alone inside an 8-by-11-foot concrete cell. His only glimpse of daylight comes once a week when he’s allowed to go into a courtyard — in chains. A fluorescent light remains on in his cell through the night, making it hard to sleep.

Morgan has been unable to adequately prepare for his upcoming trial, he and his lawyer allege, because he has no access to a law library and contact with his attorney is restricted.

Sure, Morgan’s no angel; he’s a convicted drug trafficker linked lately to the white supremacist Aryan Warriors prison gang. And time behind bars is not supposed to be a picnic. But Morgan, other North Las Vegas inmates and their lawyers say basic rights that are supposed to be guaranteed to all U.S. citizens are being denied at the jail. And even some judges have taken note of how harsh conditions are for some of the inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has an eye on the jail because “the Constitution guarantees the same rights to everyone,” notes Gary Peck, the organization’s executive director. “The moment the government decides that constitutional rights don’t apply to people who are accused of crimes or convicted of crimes is the moment when those rights lose their meaning for the rest of us.”

Complaints about rights violations at this particular jail, which is run by the North Las Vegas Police Department, have circulated for a long time. The latest to lodge them are defendants in the Aryan Warriors federal racketeering case. They are among about 250 federal defendants housed in North Las Vegas under an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Jail officials say they are doing their best to balance the rights of the inmates with the security of the facility, but the presence of the federal prisoners, some of whom are far more dangerous than the inmates the jailers are used to handling, makes everything more difficult.

Federal authorities think unrest in North Las Vegas will ease next year, when Southern Nevada gets the federal detention center marshals and others have long sought. Ground will be broken next month in Pahrump for a 500-bed facility.

But in the meantime, the allegations, some of which have been validated by federal judges, continue to haunt the North Las Vegas Detention Center.

Two years ago, during the sentencing of a drug trafficker, U.S. District Judge Philip Pro criticized North Las Vegas’ treatment of pretrial defendants — people who had not been convicted of the crime for which they were being held at the jail. Pro called it “subpar” and “borderline inhumane.”

And this month, U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson decided to give 44-year-old Kevin Curtin, a convicted sex offender, a lighter sentence after his lawyer, Cal Potter, brought to light the rough treatment Curtain had endured in isolation at the center.

In court papers seeking leniency, Potter said his client headed into trial in “no mental shape to be anything but a spectator.”

“If you weren’t living it, you wouldn’t believe it was happening at this time in our society,” Potter later said in an interview. “It’s draconian.”

Morgan, 39, has been living in isolation ever since jail officials received word that his life was threatened in the jail by Aryan Warrior leaders who, like Morgan, are awaiting trial on federal racketeering charges.

If this is how the detention center treats inmates for their own protection, Morgan said, he wants no part of it. He’d rather take his chances in the general jail population.

“They’re saying my safety outweighs my civil rights,” he said in telephone interviews.

Several other segregated Aryan Warrior defendants have filed federal court papers accusing North Las Vegas Detention Center officials of treating them too harshly. Some complain, for example, that they can’t properly shower because they remain shackled and chained whenever they are briefly let out of their cells.

But it’s not just the Aryan Warriors who are crying foul. Other segregated inmates not tied to the gang have complained about the tough jailhouse. About 100 of its estimated 1,000 inmates are kept in isolation, officials said.

Over the past several years, the ACLU has received an “inordinate” number of complaints from inmates citing a wide range of problems at the detention center, including overcrowding, inadequate medical care and the use of excessive force, Peck said.

Before he was convicted on child pornography charges in federal court last week, Robert Latham described his 11 months in an isolation cell in North Las Vegas as psychological torture.

“There’s no difference between night and day,” Latham said. “I get a newspaper every day, but other than that, I just stare at the walls.”

Roger Bergendorff, who pleaded guilty in August to possessing the deadly poison ricin following a well-publicized federal investigation, said North Las Vegas jailers “just don’t give a damn.”

In court papers, federal prosecutors and lawyers for North Las Vegas contend inmates are being treated reasonably, given some of the security concerns. U.S. Magistrate Peggy Leen, nevertheless, has been listening to the latest accusations raised by the Aryan Warrior defendants. She has had one hearing on the matter.

The Aryan Warrior defendants began seeking legal relief from the near 24-hour-lockdown conditions in June, as their court cases began to heat up.

Ben Durham, the former lawyer for Jason Inman, another alleged Aryan Warrior, said in court papers his client’s stay in isolation had taken a severe physical and mental toll on him, causing him to lose 40 pounds.

“He has not been outside since September 2007, and only then during the middle of the night,” Durham wrote. “On those occasions, he was in full restraints and shackles and required to keep moving the entire time.”

Similar allegations were leveled a month later by attorney Karen Winckler in a more comprehensive motion seeking the court’s aid on behalf of her client, Daniel Egan, 33, the Aryan Warriors’ reputed No. 2 man.

Winckler described the jail conditions as “dire” and “shocking,” adding that the jail authorities’ attitude toward medical treatment borders on “reckless.”

The lockdown conditions were harming her ability to communicate with Egan, who has since pleaded guilty in the racketeering case, she said.

“Visitation is nonexistent or very limited, depending on the mood of the facility,” Winckler wrote. “Egan’s calls (to his lawyer and family) are limited to the half-hour per day during his release time. However, this communication is meaningless because the release occurs in the middle of the night.”

At Egan’s sentencing Wednesday, Winckler said jail conditions are “just horrible” and said Egan, in many years in the Nevada prison system, “has never seen anything like this.”

Defense lawyers say some mistreatment occurs because the detention center was built to house small-time crooks and misdemeanor offenders, including those who haven’t paid parking tickets — not inmates like the Aryan Warriors, who proved hard to handle for even the state prison system.

Case in point is what they did to Guy Almony, reputed to be one of the gang’s own members.

About 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 20, Almony was talking on a phone at the jail when he was stabbed in the neck, allegedly by the gang’s reputed leader, Ronald “Joey” Sellers, who thought Almony was cooperating in the federal racketeering case.

Almony narrowly escaped death, his lawyer, Randall Roske, said.

Sellers was eventually moved to a more secure federal detention center in California, and Almony was moved to a safer prison environment outside Nevada.

“What happened to my client was a tragedy waiting to happen,” Roske said. “This entire facility is absolutely unprepared to handle inmates of this caliber and this level of dangerousness.”

North Las Vegas officials acknowledge the Aryan Warriors have presented challenges for the detention center.

“They have this need for power and to be in control of the jail,” North Las Vegas Police Chief Joe Forti said. “They create a very tense and hostile environment.”

A veteran North Las Vegas corrections officer who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation on his family said the Aryan Warriors have “slowed down” the daily operations of the detention center because of the safeguards needed to keep them in check.

“They know how to be disruptive and intimidate other inmates,” the officer said. “We’re constantly monitoring their activities.”

But the officer also insisted jail officials don’t deliberately mistreat any inmates.

“We do not tolerate any cruel and unusual punishment,” the officer said. “We do the best possible job we can in handling these types of people so that everybody can go home at night and be with their families knowing these guys are behind barbed wire and not running through their communities.”