LAS VEGAS – Through stifled sobs, Nina Fernandez described on Friday a vastly different version of events than those shared by Nevada prison officials as to why her son and dozens of others have been on hunger strike at a maximum-security prison for more than a week.
The Nevada Department of Corrections has said the protest was prompted in large part by complaints about inadequate meal portions from a new food vendor, Aramark Correctional Services, according to statements released since the prisoners at Ely State Prison stopped eating on Dec. 1
But in a phone call on the second day of the hunger strike, Fernandez said her son Sean Harvell, 35, told her the protest was over what he called unsafe and inhumane living conditions.
Harvell alleges physical abuse by prison staff, excessive lockdowns and unreasonably long periods of solitary confinement, in addition to the food concerns.
On Friday, a top correctional official maintained that meal portions led to the strike at the prison about 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Las Vegas.
“I’m unaware of rights being violated,” said Brian Williams, deputy director of the state Department of Corrections, adding that the agency is “going to do what’s in the best interest of the offenders.”
Williams was peppered with questions from prison reform advocates and reporters outside a state-run transitional housing facility in Las Vegas. About a dozen people had gathered to show support for the Ely prisoners on the ninth day of their hunger strike.
According to the Department of Corrections, two dozen people were participating in the hunger strike as of Friday morning. Of those, 19 have refused food for nine straight days, since Dec. 1.
Williams’ comments did little to ease tensions outside the Las Vegas facility, and as he went back inside, Fernandez said she was reminded of a recent conversation with her son, who has been incarcerated at Ely since late 2016.
“He said, ‘Mom, if I never make it out, just know I loved you,’” Fernandez, a mother of 13, recalled. “That’s sad to say as a parent that your child came to you like that.”
Nearby, a man she had never met opened his arms offering a hug and Fernandez accepted, crying into his chest.
The man, Marcus Kelley, said he served nearly a decade in a Michigan prison before being released in February 2021. Kelley told Fernandez he also participated in hunger strikes in 2014 prompted by issues with Aramark, the food vendor. Those included unapproved menu substitutions and worker misconduct. In one instance, a kitchen employee was fired for ordering a cake be served to prisoners that appeared to have been nibbled on by rodents.
Michigan ultimately terminated its $145 million contract with Aramark 14 ½ months early.
The food vendor has not returned requests for comment about the new claims in Nevada.
In a statement released hours after the Las Vegas protest, William Gittere, acting director of the Nevada prison system, announced a policy change to “administrative sanctions” in light of the hunger strike.
He said that as of Friday, prison staff will not impose more than one sanction on a prisoner at a time. Sanctions include revoking phone time and commissary privileges.
Prior to the hunger strike, prisoners could be punished with “concurrent” sanctions, meaning multiple privileges might be taken from a prisoner at the same time, the statement said.
Gittere described the new policy as a “significant change.”
Return Strong, a prisoners' rights group that has been in contact with the Ely protestors, shared a list of demands compiled by the prisoners ahead of Friday's protest.
Among the changes they want to see, according to Return Strong, are an end to “de facto solitary confinement” and group punishment, and “immediate intervention” by the state to address health and safety concerns.
Gittere stepped in as acting director after the former prison system chief, Charles Daniels, was asked to resign by Gov. Steve Sisolak. That came in the wake of the high-profile escape of a convicted murderer who planted a motion-activated bomb in a casino parking lot in 2007, killing one person. The escape went unnoticed for four days.