LAS VEGAS (AP) – 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 December 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 400 kilometres north of Las Vegas.
“I’m unaware of rights being violated,” said Deputy Director of the state Department of Corrections Brian Williams, 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 December 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 USD145 million contract with Aramark 14-and-a-half 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.