LAS VEGAS (AP) — Lawsuits and data point to multiple cases of guards firing shotguns at inmates at a Nevada state prison where a handcuffed prisoner was killed by a corrections officer trainee last November.
Federal lawsuits have been filed in Las Vegas by at least three of six inmates who say they were wounded by shotgun pellets fired by guards breaking up a January 2012 mealtime scuffle at High Desert State Prison. A state lawsuit was filed on behalf of a fourth wounded inmate.
None of the wounded was involved in the fight that prompted guards to open fire, their lawyers said in interviews this week with The Associated Press.
In July 2012, inmate Dario Olivas was blinded in one eye when a guard fired a shotgun to stop two other inmates fighting in the dinner hall, according to a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed by his attorney, Cal Potter.
Potter also represents another inmate, Ryan Layman, who alleges he was wounded by guards twice — in August 2012 and April 2014 — and that prison doctors refused to remove shotgun pellets from his hand and leg.
Another prisoner, Tuiofu Sooga, alleges in a federal lawsuit that he was wounded in the liver and heart when a guard fired at him in a meal hall during Thanksgiving dinner in 2013. When he regained consciousness, guards forced him to walk to the prison infirmary, Sooga alleges.
"It appears to be a pattern," said Michael Kane, a Las Vegas lawyer representing Sooga and three of the inmates wounded in the January 2012 breakfast shooting.
"Just the sheer number of cases. There appears to be a shoot-first policy," Kane said.
Nevada Department of Corrections data obtained by state Sen. Tick Segerblom show guards fired 215 shots at High Desert State Prison in a five-year span — including 60 in 2011, the latest figures available. That was nearly twice the total of 124 shots fired by guards at the state's other 21 prison facilities during the same period.
"The shooting of a handcuffed inmate obviously raises red flags," said Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, who said he's troubled by accounts of previously unreported prison shootings.
"These are serious cases that need to be looked at," he said. "It could be systematic of the overall lack of resources we spend on prisons."
High Desert is the facility outside Las Vegas where inmate Carlos Manuel Perez Jr. was killed and inmate Andrew Jay Arevalo was wounded in a shower hallway shooting last November.
Potter called for accountability from the governor and state attorney general. Both are members, along with the secretary of state, of the three-member Nevada Board of State Prison Commissioners.
Gov. Brian Sandoval has left investigations of the Nov. 12 shooting involving Perez and Arevalo to local, county and state authorities.
Attorney General Adam Laxalt is investigating and evaluating an investigative report, spokeswoman Patty Cafferata said Wednesday.
Nevada Department of Corrections deputy chief Brian Connett said by email Tuesday that he was out of the state and unable to respond to questions about state and federal lawsuits reviewed by The Associated Press. Department officials routinely decline to comment about litigation and investigations.
Nevada prisons chief Greg Cox appeared Wednesday before state lawmakers in Carson City on budget questions.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer of Reno, Republican chairman of the finance committee, said Cox wasn't asked about shootings at the prison.
The prison is Nevada's largest and busiest, holding almost 4,200 medium- and high-risk prisoners. By comparison, Nevada's maximum security prison in Ely houses about 1,180 inmates.
Potter, who represents Perez's family in a federal wrongful death and excessive force lawsuit, alleges that guards created a "gladiator-like scenario" to let the two inmates fight in a shower hallway where prisoners are supposed to be kept apart.
The fight ended when a corrections officer trainee fired one warning shot and three live shotgun blasts down the hallway, according to an incident report that identifies the trainee only by his last name. The trainee reported that Perez and Arevalo ignored verbal commands to stop fighting.
Arevalo survived with gunshot wounds to the face, according to his attorney, Alexis Plunkett. She said she plans to file an excessive force lawsuit after administrative remedies are exhausted.
Travis Barrick, a lawyer representing inmate Lawrence Evans in arbitration on a Clark County District Court negligence claim over the Jan. 28, 2012, shooting, said incidents coming to light show "a pattern and practice of excessive force in Nevada prisons."
"There is zero accountability for what happens inside," he said.