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CAT. CARSON TIMES. FILE photo by Lisa J. Tolda...Judge Michael Griffin sentences Scott Brendle, Anthony Merlino and Darien Brock in a case of slain wild horses in this 2002 file photo. ((2nd of 2 photos for use on 7-7 in Carson Times with overheard story)). (LISA J. TOLDA/LOCAL:STAFF)

Outgoing judge says Carson court on right track
Steve Timko (STIMKO@RGJ.COM)
December 23, 2006

Carson District Court Judge Michael Griffin, currently the longest-serving state court jurist in Nevada, steps down this month optimistic the court is doing a lot of things right.

Griffin, 63, has served 28 years in the state's First Judicial District. He's leaving to join the Reno law firm of Kummer Kaempfer Bonner Renshaw & Ferrario where he will do mediation and handle government law issues.

By virtue of its location in the state capital, the First Judicial District Court gets a disproportionate share of statewide challenges to taxes, laws and ballot measures.

And when Griffin took the bench in 1979, Nevada State Prison in Carson City was a maximum-security prison that housed the state's death row inmates. So Griffin had more than his fair share of murders, riots, stabbings and kidnappings among the state's worst of the worst prison inmates.

"I once had to sentence someone to life after death," Griffin remembered with his characteristic dry wit.

In the old courthouse on Carson Street, Griffin can remember one case where five death row cellmates were segregated up and down a corridor for security. Deputies armed with submachine guns and shotguns patrolled outside.

"It was scary because we had some high-profile, dangerous people in here," Griffin said.

Eventually Nevada State Prison became a medium-security facility, and the most dangerous inmates were moved elsewhere.

Carson City continued to grow in the years he was on the bench, but Griffin said the caseload for him and fellow Judge Bill Maddox has leveled off in the last four years.

The courts are now doing some things differently than when he took office in 1979, and Griffin said it's an improvement. It has a drug court that focuses more on treatment over punishment for drug offenders. About 27 percent of drug court graduates offend again, which Griffin said is a good success rate.

Additionally, there's now a mental health court handled at the justice court level that helps people who end up in the legal system even though their problems have more to do with mental health than criminal behavior.

And Griffin thinks the juvenile court system in Carson City is the best in the state.

"They tend to work with kids in distress and trouble and do a good job with that," Griffin said. "We get a lot of people coming back and saying: 'Thank God for the juvenile court system because I would have been in a lot of trouble without it.'"

One area that Griffin concedes could still use improvement is child custody cases, particularly in deciding visitation issues.

People may not understand what it means when child custody issues are litigated, Griffin said. For instance, they may have a lifestyle and patterns that existed for years before the divorce and they consider that normal.

"I may not regard it all as being normal," Griffin said. And he's the one who is tasked with deciding what is best for the children. A divorce case can last eight to 10 years.

"The child custody is the hardest because you're resolving cases that people ought to be resolving themselves," Griffin said. "They want to talk about a lot of things that are emotional, but we don't do that in court."

He's encouraged by what seems to be a movement to get the courts involved earlier in the cases to identify whether there are going to be child custody disputes "as early as possible before the lines are drawn," Griffin said.

Dan Reaser, now a lawyer with Lionel, Sawyer and Collins, was a law clerk for Griffin from 1980 to 1981. Reaser called Griffin a phenomenal mentor who often seemed to take historical and cultural issues into consideration when making a decision.

"He wasn't worried about what his statistics (on appeals) were going to be," Reaser said. "He was more worried about, 'What is the right decision for the two people who have this dispute in front of me?'"

Reaser also worked for a California appellate judge and said Griffin stood out for another reason. Griffin always kept at least one guitar in his chambers. At the end of the day after a big trial, or while putting in long hours on a decision, Griffin would sit as his desk and play country and western music, Reaser said.

"He was blending the music and thought process, and it was very, very unique," Reaser said. "It was very Nevada."

Griffin stills play in a band with his brother, a son and two others. Originally called Reunion, it's now called Red's Ramblers.

The band's repertoire?

"The Clash, trash and Johnny Cash," Griffin said. "I play the guitar loudly but poorly."

Nevada Prisons



In December 1861 there were many criminals in the Territory of Nevada. The first Territorial Legislature thought it was time to provide for some way of keeping order, and they created a Board of State Prison Commissioners. 

Abe Curry had built a place at Warm Springs (now E. 5th Street in Carson City), and offered it for a meeting place of the first Territorial Legislature. 

The Nevada Legislature was duly elected from a population of miners, cowboys, adventurers and ranchers, but they couldn't find a place to hold their meetings. Carson City had no intention of giving a hall, rent free, or even renting one on the cuff to a legislature with no money behind it. Abe Curry jumped to the rescue and offered the free use of his hotel for legislative meetings. He even built a horse-drawn railway to convey the solons from Carson City to his hotel, a distance of two miles. It was slow, but better than walking ... His business enjoyed a great upswing and the legislators found the atmosphere and the dining room and the bar much to their liking ... It happened one night that they all met in the Warm Springs bar after a particularly heated session for a gay evening that grew rosier as the hours passed by. Along toward morning somebody made a remark. Words were heated and insults filled the air, and soon a bottle-smashing, chair-throwing brawl was in full swing. A big mirror crashed to the floor, breaking bar glasses as it fell, and table legs snapped like toothpicks. When it was over a very indignant Mr. Curry stood amid the wreckage of his hotel and demanded full restitution ..." 

To make up for their rowdy activities, they bought the property for a prison site. They hurried to Carson City, met in quick session, voted that the Territory buy some of the old Warm Springs Hotel buildings and an old stone quarry for a territorial prison, raided the treasury to the tune of $80,000 leaving one thin dime on which the Territory had to operate for the rest of the year and elected Abe Curry warden (Nevada State Journal, Nov. 14, 1954). 

On Feb. 20, 1864, an Act was approved and said: The Board of Commissioners, consisting of the Secretary of the Territory, Territorial Auditor and Territorial Treasurer, shall, on or before the first day of March, 1864, contract with Abram Curry for the purchase of the building now occupied for a Territorial Prison, together with twenty acres of land including the stone quarry, with all improvements, implements, arms and mechanic's tools or now used for the labor and security of the prisoners ... and upon the proper execution thereof the Territorial Auditor shall ... issue bonds to said Curry to the amount of $80,000 bearing interest at the rate of ten per centum per annum for the purchase of said property (History of Nevada 1881, Thompson and West). 

In 1864, Robert M. Howland was made warden. Bob had then the same reputation for levity that he now enjoys, and when he became Warden the prisoners thought they would have an easy time of it, but were disappointed ... not a prisoner escaped during his term of office. George Kirk, a notorious character, was sentenced in 1864 to imprisonment for highway robbery. The first morning of his stay in the penitentiary he refused to come out of his cell and "fall in line" with the other prisoners. This is how Howland subdued Kirk: The Warden quietly ordered his cell door closed, and the other prisoners were marched "left hand on next mans shoulder" to breakfast. Kirk, in the meantime, was raving, and loudly cursing, and defying the Warden ... The Warden quietly went to the blacksmith shop, procured a bar of steel about twelve feet long and had it heated for about four feet on one end to a red heat, and as quietly came back with it to cell No 5. He again ordered Kirk to come out and "fall in," and was met with the former refusal and violent abuse. The Warden closed the grated door of the cell, and shoved the bar of steel, hot end foremost through the bars ... Kirk howled with mingled rage and torture ... At last he [Kirk] realized the helplessness of his position and begged for mercy." (History of Nevada 1881, Thompson and West). 

In an article by Phillip Earl, March 28, 1976, entitled " Early Nevada prison wardens were tough" he talks about Bob Howland and says he "... was nobody to fool with. A friend of Territorial Governor James Warren Nye, Holland had migrated to Nevada in 1861. For a time he was Samuel Clemens' partner and cabin mate at Aurora before the latter gave up mining and began a literary career under the name of Mark Twain."

There were 120 prisoners at the time of the fire in 1867. Governor Slingerland reported on the treatment of inmates: In the system adopted, I have not proposed to consume precious time in trying to make an unmitigated rascal an honest man. I have no "trustees," they all stand on equal footing, one with another; yet among them there are good men, who, if restored to liberty, would make good citizens and become worthy members of society. They are all cleanly clothed and well fed, each one is dressed in prison uniform, made of woolen cloth with stripes black and white. They all labor faithfully each day in the prison yard, and at meals get for Breakfast: beefsteak, potatoes, bread, hot or cold. Dinner: roast beef or stew. Baked beans on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Mush and molasses, or pudding, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Soup on Tuesdays. Bread and potatoes each day. Supper: cold meat, hash, potatoes and bread, stewed peaches or apples every other day ...

In the election of 1868, Frank Denver was chosen lieutenant governor. At that time the lieutenant governor's job was to be warden of the prison. During his tenure, stone was quarried for the state capitol. In 1873 a bill was passed in the Legislature "to provide for the erection of a State Prison," authorizing $100,000 and use of prison land or to purchase land and erect buildings. They purchased 206 acres of land on the banks of the Truckee River, a mile east of Reno. (History of Nevada 1881, Thompson and West). 

The Morning Appeal reports on the Legislative Session on Feb 21, 1881, that ... a lively debate ensued ..." after the State's Prison bill came up. The bill was introduced by Westerfield, and appropriated $80,000 for the erection of a State's Prison at Reno. Haines was the first to get on his feet, and ridiculed the idea that manufacturing could be made profitable by Nevada convict labor when competing with California convict labor. Meder thought the bill would simply result in a large expenditure of money to no purpose. He believed it would be just as well to house the prisoners in the Palace Hotel." Further debate continued, "... Farrell spoke against the bill. He believed that the people wanted expenses cut down. No public building had ever been put up for the original appropriation. Furthermore, $80,000 would not build this Reno prison. 

The prison remained in Carson City and to this day there is still a prison here. 

There have been many wardens, many stories of the criminals incarcerated there over the years and struggles over budget issues have come up in each legislative session since 1861. But, after serving Nevada for about 145 years, this is the first time that closure has come close to a reality. The Nevada State Prison will always be an important part of Carson City and Nevada's history. Let's not forget. 

We can learn from history how past generations thought and acted, how they responded to the demands of their time and how they solved their problems. We can learn by analogy, not by example, for our circumstances will always be different than theirs were. The main thing history can teach us is that human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone ... (Gerda Lerner)

Sue Ballew is the daughter of Bill Dolan, who wrote the Past Pages column for the Nevada Appeal from 1947 until his death in 2006. She is past president of the Carson City Historical Society. 


Inmates Angry After Nevada Bans Typewriters in Jail
Tuesday , August 12, 2008

Nevada prison officials have confiscated hundreds of portable typewriters from inmates who have used them for decades to tap out legal briefs to appeal their convictions, arguing parts of the machines could be converted into weapons.

The Department of Corrections cited two incidents of violence in recently changing the policy one when an inmate died and another when a guard was threatened.

Inmates have filed a growing pile of lawsuits protesting the new rule, saying officials are using the security argument as an excuse to try to slow their legal complaints about overcrowded prisons and difficult living conditions.

They also say the increase in violence in the prisons is the result of failed policies that have forced more and more inmates together into smaller spaces. Trying to quell the flow of suits challenging these issues by taking away their writing tools, they say, violates their constitutional rights.

The Nevada attorney general's office filed a response asking the federal court to make clear the department "has a legal right to declare typewriters unauthorized property," and that the ban on typewriters does not violate inmate rights.

"Historically, typewriters have been an issue because their parts can be turned into weapons," said Greg Smith, a former guard and current state corrections spokesman.

"The attacks precipitated more discussion for a ban," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Gary Piccinini, a senior officer with the department, said in a memo that several parts in particular are deadly. The rubber roller on one type of typewriter has a hollow piece of cylindrical metal inside that's 14 inches long and "is very heavy and could be used as a club." The cylindrical piece in the Brother typewriter "can also be made into a stabbing weapon."

The Canon typewriter has two other metal parts that can be sharpened into a slicing type weapon, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said typewriters are a critical part of the pro se legal process, in which individuals represent themselves, and efforts should be made to allow their use.

"It's disappointing that the department of corrections could not have found a middle ground that protected inmate safety while allowing some access to typewriters," said Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the ACLU's Reno office. "Inmate restrictions should be linked to actual and demonstrable safety risks, especially when they affect a fundamental right such as access to the court system."

Nicole Moon, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the ban was not meant to stop lawsuits.

"The ban on typewriters was implemented for safety and security, and is in no way intended to affect inmate litigation," she said.

As with many prison systems across the country, Nevada's correctional facilities are busting at the seams.

Gov. Jim Gibbons used those words to describe the conditions during a tour of a correctional center last year, and Howard Skolnik, director of the Department of Corrections, told reporters: "To say we are in a crisis is not an exaggeration."

By last May, the state housed 13,113 inmates, 1,196 over capacity, Skolnik said. The influx forced prison officials to house inmates in program rooms, activity centers and even tents. At the Warm Springs Correctional Center last year, four inmates were being squeezed into cells measuring 12 feet by 12 feet.

The prison population is projected to top 21,000 by 2016.

At Ely State Prison, the state's only maximum-security facility, violent inmates who had been living alone now share their space, resulting in at least one death.

In December 2006, Anthony Beltran was killed, allegedly by cellmate Douglas Scott Potter.

The weapon was "the roller pin from inside the platen of the inmate's typewriter," Greg Cox, deputy director of operations for DOC, said in an affidavit. "It is easily accessible and easily concealed."

That was the first incident that sparked the typewriter ban, the attorney general's staff said in its response. The second was March 2007, when an inmate tried to stab a guard with a weapon that had been "fashioned from a piece of an inmate typewriter."

Officials announced the next day that typewriters were prohibited at Ely. The ban was extended to all prisons by May.

Inmate Russell Cohen sought injunctions in at least seven legal actions, saying the ban was unconstitutional. The state responded with its filing in June 2007.

At least 13 actions have been filed in federal court over the typewriter issue, said Alicia Lerud, a deputy attorney general. Three other U.S. cases are pending and at least four cases are in state court over the typewriter ban, she said.

Some inmates at the Ely facility say the attack on Beltran was destined to happen, regardless of the weapon used.

"It is simply irrational to blame the December 2006 attack on a typewriter, when televisions, extension cords and even prison boots have been used and are available in situations similar to the December 2006 incident," inmates Travers Greene and Paul Browning said in a handwritten motion.

Browing said Potter told him that he had "repeatedly pleaded with prison officials not to place him in the cell with Mr. Beltran and if this happened, there would be trouble."

Potter also sent prison officials three notes stating his violent intentions.

In the first, Potter said he wanted to be in a single cell: "Whoever you decide I am to live with, so make sure he is big, knows how to fight, and ain't afraid to die."

In the second, he wrote, "I give fair warning that whoever you move in I will physically assault savagely."


Poor medical care at Nevada prison cited

Inmates at the Ely facility have been denied help for heart problems, diabetes and other serious medical conditions, records show.
By Ashley Powers and Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
December 6, 2007

ELY, NEV. -- When Nevada death row inmate Charles Randolph asked for a specific medicine to address his heart condition earlier this year, Max Carter, the prison's physician assistant, sent a curt reply: The medication was the wrong kind and potentially lethal, but he would be happy to prescribe it "so that your chances of expiring sooner are increased."

When another prisoner, John O. Snow, asked for pills in July to ease the pain from his deteriorating joints, Carter's denial came with another stinging missive, stating that he was "gonna let you suffer."


To many prison observers, Carter's responses exemplify the callous indifference custody officials at the maximum-security Ely State Prison have for sick prisoners. There has been no staff doctor to handle the medical needs of any the 1,000 inmates here for more than 18 months. Carter is the highest-ranking medical worker at the men's prison; the last staff doctor was a gynecologist.

According to interviews and records obtained by The Times, prisoners at Ely have been denied care for heart problems, diabetes and other serious medical conditions. Earlier this year, a nurse was fired after complaining about substandard care at the facility, which she said led to one inmate needlessly dying of gangrene.

Attorneys for some Ely inmates say they believe the lack of medical care has played a role in a high percentage of death row inmates giving up their appeals and "volunteering" to be executed. All but two of 12 inmates executed in the state in the last 30 years have been volunteers. No other state in the country has had close to that percentage of volunteers, records show.

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project has taken up the cause at Ely. ACLU attorneys Amy Fettig and Margaret Winter have met with corrections officials and pressed for reforms to improve inmate care.

A doctor working with the ACLU was granted access to 35 inmates and their medical records in October, and he came to a stark conclusion.

"The medical care provided at Ely State Prison amounts to the grossest possible medical malpractice, and the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering that I have ever encountered in my 35 years of practice," Dr. William K. Noel said in a report sent Wednesday to Howard Skolnik, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections.

"It is highly unlikely that these 35 cases are aberrations," Noel wrote. "These cases show a system that is so broken and dysfunctional that, in my opinion, every one of the prisoners at Ely . . . who has serious medical needs, or who may develop serious medical needs, is at enormous risk."

Skolnik said Wednesday he had not seen Noel's report and could not comment on any specific allegations. However, he added: "I do know that I have recently been informed through some other auditing that the access to medical care and the quality of care provided by the department meets or exceeds community standards."

An attorney who represents the corrections department said she could not comment, as did an assistant to prison warden E.K. McDaniel.

Max Carter did not respond to messages left for him at the prison's medical department.

Dr. Steven MacArthur, the obstetrician-gynecologist who was the prison's last staff doctor, said it was difficult to treat inmates with severe psychological problems and who cursed and spat at staff. Some prisoners refused to visit the infirmary simply because they couldn't smoke there, he said. Nonetheless, he said, they were well cared for.

"Most inmates age in dog years. They beat the hell out of themselves," he said. "They have lots of aches and pains."

In his report, Noel said he found instances of prisoners being denied medical attention despite suffering from seizures, syphilis, deep vein thrombosis and rheumatoid arthritis. He acknowledged that many Ely prisoners "have committed horrible crimes" but said physicians took an oath to make "no judgments as to character or morality" when treating a patient.

Under a 1976 Supreme Court decision, based on the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, government officials are obliged "to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration."

In a letter accompanying Noel's report, ACLU attorneys Fettig and Winter asked the director of corrections to set up a meeting with Gov. Jim Gibbons because the "medical crisis" at the prison goes far beyond the lack of a doctor and it "seems unrealistic to expect" the department "to summon the resources to resolve the problems without the assistance of the governor and the Legislature."

The facility, which opened in 1989, is more than 250 miles from the state's population and power centers: Reno, Las Vegas and capital Carson City, where executions take place. It handles the day-to-day medical needs of prisoners, but if inmates experience serious ailments, like chest pains, they are sent to a local hospital; life-threatening cases, such as stabbing victims, are airlifted to a larger city.

The prison sits about a dozen miles outside its namesake's downtown.

The prison's desolation -- a source of frustration to inmate families and defense attorneys -- is part of its appeal to the 4,000-person town, said Mayor Jon Hickman The facility is easy to ignore, he said. It also provides hundreds of secure jobs to a city whose economy is tied to the tumultuous mining industry.

In this setting, inmate advocates say, corrections officials have denied prisoners needed antibiotics, pain pills and surgeries with little outcry because no local groups exist to do so. When a nurse who had worked at the prison for nearly a decade spoke out, she was forced to scrub the infirmary floor with a toothbrush, court papers say.

That nurse, Lorraine Memory, said in an interview that the prison's dozen or so medical staffers lacked equipment, including an IV pump and a blood pressure monitoring machine, that were particularly helpful during a medical trauma. Little training is provided to the staff, some of whom struggle to use a defibrillator, said Memory, who was eventually fired.

Jewel Jacques, a nurse who has worked at Ely since 1993, and two other prison staffers have signed declarations backing up Memory's account of prison conditions.

Most inmates complaining of pain are given only a handful of Tylenol a week, Jacques said.

Relatives of some inmates say prisoners with minor ailments often avoid the infirmary, convinced that Ely's medical staff would either ignore or harm them.

Inmate Snow, who is on death row for the 1983 contract killing of a Las Vegas nightclub owner, has no cartilage in his hips, but was given no painkillers to cope with bones that scrape against one another, Noel's report said. Instead, the prisoner was prescribed Indocin, whose side effects are so severe that the anti-inflammatory medication is mainly used on horses.

At Noel's suggestion, Dr. Robert Bannister, medical director of the state corrections department, changed Snow's medication. But the doctor is still balking at allowing Snow to have hip surgery, Noel wrote. Without it, the inmate will eventually be unable to move, Noel said.

Bannister did not return calls seeking comment.

Such cases frustrate medical staff who said their superiors had long shrugged at inmate suffering because they were concerned about the costs of treatment, according to court papers.

In a complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Memory alleged that two diabetic prisoners were denied insulin because MacArthur "wanted to hasten the demise of these two inmates in order to save money or cause them more pain and suffering."

MacArthur denied the allegations.

One of the diabetics, Patrick Cavanaugh, likely suffered from dementia after three years without insulin, according to Noel's report.

Cavanaugh, a former manager for the rock group the Coasters, was on death row for shooting to death one of the group's singers, mutilating his body and dumping it in a canyon.

In prison, Cavanaugh developed gangrene, Memory wrote, and his "toes and feet turned black and this gradually progressed up the legs until it had turned into a stinking, rotting, oozing mess of dead flesh which had reached clear up the level of his knees."

Cavanaugh's medical records, however, described his condition as cellulitis, which Noel said was akin to calling "9/11 a high-rise fire."

MacArthur said Cavanaugh refused oxygen and was never denied insulin. If he was not given it, it was because Cavanaugh declined it, the doctor said.

Cavanaugh died in April 2006; his death certificate was signed by a doctor who had not seen the body and lists "natural causes" as the reason, Memory said.

A month later, state officials fired MacArthur -- but not because nurses and other prison employees charged that he provided poor or negligent care. Rather, corrections officials said, it was because MacArthur refused to give up his full-time job at the local hospital, though there was no evidence that it caused him to neglect his prison duties.

MacArthur said the dismissal was unmerited. In a letter to his private practice patients he said that he "was responsible for saving the taxpayers of this state $1 million per year."

In an interview with The Times this week, MacArthur said he was proud of care he provided to prisoners, but acknowledged limits on what the medical staff would treat.

"We didn't cater to every rash and boo-boo that you'd run to your mommy and get kissed," he said.

Powers reported from Ely and Weinstein from Los Angeles.

Nevada Prison Guards Pass Out Warning Leaflets to Neighbors

June 13, 2006, 08:20 AM

Guards at the Nevada State Prison have left about one-thousand leaflets at surrounding homes, warning that the Carson City facility poses a threat to the community.

The action reflects ongoing problems between prison management and staff that began early this year. More than 100 employees rallied outside the prison gate in April.

The flier says more dangerous inmates are being moved in, and a May fight left an inmate injured and the prison locked down for a week.

State prisons spokesman Fritz Schlottman says the facility is safe and neighbors need not worry.

Tensions between staff and management have grown since Glen Whorton was appointed corrections director and Bill Donat was selected prison warden last year.

The State of Nevada Employees Asociation, which represents guards, says the new administration has eliminated some programs designed to help inmates, and made changes that affected guards without consulting them.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Updated December 31, 2008

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