Nevada’s prison system sees major changes in year since high-profile escape

Nevada’s prison system has seen major changes in the year since a high-profile escape.
Published: Sep. 27, 2023 at 11:52 PM PDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - It was one year ago that Nevada prison officials realized a convicted murderer was missing from his cell. Somehow, he had escaped from a correctional center in Indian Springs just outside Las Vegas. It led to an intense manhunt, his recapture, and intense scrutiny of the Nevada Department of Corrections. A lot has changed since then including leadership of Nevada’s correctional system and the leader of all of Nevada.

“The resources were deplorable… I used to be the sheriff, so I know what is necessary to have a secure environment,” Governor Joe Lombardo told FOX5 during a tour inside the Southern Desert Correctional Center. It fell on the then Metro Sheriff and now governor to ensure public safety during the manhunt for convicted killer Porfirio Duarte-Herrera after his escape last September.

It was several days before anyone even noticed he was gone. Duarte-Herrera escaped on a Friday night. It went undetected until Tuesday morning. It was another day until the public and sheriff were notified.

“Infrastructure issues in the prison system, staffing issues in the prison system, the ability for this individual to do it… is a grave concern for me and for the entire law enforcement community,” Lombardo said during a news conference after Duarte-Herrera’s capture.

It was Metro officers who took him in as he was about to board a bus to Mexico. The officers had scoured the valley asking staff at a bus depot earlier that day to be on the lookout for the man who detonated a bomb in the Luxor parking garage in 2007, used battery acid to break down the window of his cell, built a dummy to fill his bed, and snuck past a watch tower overlooking his unit to get out. FOX5 spoke to a former correctional officer who said that tower had been unmanned for years.

“Not only could that tower see the unit, but the tower could see the fence line where the damage that allowed the inmate to get through,” explained Paul Lackwits.

A dire shortage of correctional officers had plagued NDOC for years. Some facilities had less than 50 percent of the correctional officers needed. Governor Lombardo sought to change that.

“We ensured that we got them raises across all state workers, so we don’t have that exiting on a daily basis and we have appropriate staffing levels,” Lombardo contended. The leader of the Nevada Department of Corrections also changed when Lomardo took office.

“I will be successful in this state with reducing the reducing victimization in the community because I know how to do that with my experience all around the country,” NDOC Director James Dzurenda promised. Dzurenda was re-hired as NDOC Director. He was previously director from 2016 to 2019. Dzurenda asserts safety is increasing now as more correctional officers are being hired and re-hired.

“Having that impact on the raises, we have already had a large number. I’ve had 40 just in the last two weeks of staff that have retired requesting to come back to try and get the extra pay,” Dzurenda shared. FOX5 was the only TV station there as Dzurenda and Governor Lombardo toured Southern Desert Correctional Center looking at spaces and renderings for new specialized classrooms.

“The number one impact on the reduction of recidivism came from vocational ed. training… it’s going to be unique to the rest of the country,” Dzurenda reported about a new Hope for Prisoners program. Low, medium, and high risk offenders with 18 months or less until their release will be eligible to learn high-paying jobs like welding, commercial truck driving, and HVAC repair. Dzurenda believes NDOC must prepare offenders for re-entry to the outside world so they don’t re-offend and end up back in the system.

“If they are more successful, less people are being victimized… Governor’s focus is on getting crime rates down, getting less victims, lowering the prison population, and this is the best way to do it… this will be a safer community soon,” Dzurenda vowed.

Significant adjustments, upgrades, and modernization are ongoing at the NDOC facilities across the state, that includes improving the fencing around Southern Desert Correctional Center.