Nevada homicide raises questions of guards' use of guns

AP News
Posted: Apr 09, 2015 11:35 PM

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Nevada prison where a handcuffed inmate was killed by a guard with a shotgun during what a lawsuit calls a "gladiator-style" prisoner fight staged by guards has an unusually high number of incidents of corrections officers firing guns, despite most lockups nationwide not allowing anyone to even carry guns in secure areas.

Between 2007 and 2011, Nevada Department of Corrections statistics show shots were fired by High Desert State Prison guards more than any other type of force, except when controlling a situation by hand. Guards fired guns 215 times in those five years, including 60 in 2011 — the most recent year figures were available.

The prison is Nevada's largest, able to hold 4,176 higher-security prisoners. By comparison, there were two to six shots fired each year in that time at Ely State Prison, Nevada's maximum security prison that can house up to 1,183 inmates.

Nevada prison policy specifies that deadly force is intended to be a last resort and only to shield people from serious harm, protect prison property and stop escapes.

A lawsuit accuses guards of staging a "gladiator-style" fight just outside the prison showers between two handcuffed inmates — and then firing four shots from a shotgun. The shooting killed inmate Carlos Manuel Perez Jr., who was serving 18 months to four years for hitting a man in the head with a two-by-four in downtown Las Vegas two days before Thanksgiving 2012. The other inmate survived with gunshot wounds to the face, according to his attorney.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has said local, county and state authorities investigated the shooting. A report is being reviewed by Nevada's attorney general.

Who gets to carry guns and where they can be used varies among the state's prison systems, but observers generally agreed that most prisons don't allow weapons inside the prison's secured perimeter.

"Guards don't walk around with weapons," said Stephen Pevar, a national ACLU attorney who has represented inmates in lawsuits asserting violations of civil rights.

Guards are usually vastly outnumbered by prisoners who, if given the opportunity, could overtake staff and take their weapons, Pevar said. Weapons are often reserved for guard towers, emergency teams and outside the prison's perimeter.

The state's Department of Corrections has said little except to say it doesn't comment on pending investigations and litigation and that the agency extends its heartfelt sympathies to the family of Perez. The shooting happened on Nov. 12, but the department didn't release any information about the shooting until months later when authorities announced they were launching a homicide investigation into the incident.

The agency didn't respond to several questions about which officers can carry guns in the state's prisons, where on the prison grounds they can be carried, its policies when to use deadly force or why 60 shots were fired in 2011.

The numbers also don't indicate if shots were fired at inmates or simply warning shots in the air. Using 12-gauge shotguns loaded with blanks or birdshot designed to immobilize prisoners is among the prison system's non-deadly equipment options.

The records show that in those five years, a baton or stun gun appear to have never been used. Chemicals agents that could include pepper spray or tear gas and body shields were used on a few occasions.

Alex Friedmann, editor of Prison Legal News, said Nevada's regulation on the use of deadly force is broad.

"If you're going to use deadly force, you're going to want to have some pretty clear guidelines for your staff," he said. "It has to be grounded in policy guidelines."

How often deadly force is used inside prison walls isn't clearly traced.

The U.S. Department of Justice keeps track of the number of prisoners who die while in prison, but the most recent data is from 2011. The homicide classification includes deadly force but also slayings by other inmates and deaths that resulted from injuries sustained before imprisonment. Overall, it's rare, accounting for 1.2 to 2.1 percent of all state prisoner deaths nationwide between 2001 and 2011.

"They're using deadly force when less than lethal force should be used," said attorney Cal Potter, who is representing the family of Perez in its lawsuit against the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Even if shots were fired to break up a fight, "All they can do is kick," Potter said. "They're handcuffed behind their backs."