New Director, New Mission in Nevada Corrections | Special Guest Blog

As part of our ongoing commitment to improving lives in our community, we are excited to welcome James Dzurenda, Director of the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC), to share how the NDOC is introducing new data-driven programming to provide rehabilitation and help inmates avoid relapsing into criminal behavior.

Prison is probably not the first thing to pop into your mind when you think about personal growth, but we at the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) are hoping to change that with new leadership and a new mission focused on programs reducing relapse into criminal behavior (recidivism) and providing rehabilitation.

I moved my way up through the ranks to Commissioner in the Connecticut DOC, and worked as First Deputy Commissioner in New York City, before being appointed NDOC Director in April 2016.  In my experience, I’ve learned that public safety relies on inmates wanting to change their behavior. Ninety percent of the 13,500 inmates we have in Nevada prisons will be released in the next 20 years. If we do nothing more than what we’ve been doing, when they are released into our neighborhoods they are very likely to re-offend. This means our family members and friends could become victims.

Front-end programming is the answer to an inmate’s successful reintegration into the community.  Re-entry begins not two years or two months before inmates are released from custody, but the day they arrive at our door. While my experience working with inmate re-entry programs has shown the real power of these programs, it’s important to use the data behind these programs to show the true impact. 

Compare the New York State and Florida State prison systems from the year 2000 until today.  New York implemented evidence-based programs, programs backed by three years of data, while Florida was forced to cut programming and dedicate funding toward security.  Today, New York’s population is down by 15,000 inmates.  During the same time in Florida, the prison population rose by over 30,000 inmates. As an encouraging sign, Florida hired a new Secretary of the DOC in January 2015 who is implementing significant rehabilitation reforms and their numbers already show decreases.  We know this approach works.

It is my firm belief that these evidence-based programs must address the core issue with each individual inmate.  It’s not a one size fits all situation. Many inmates need help battling alcohol or drug addictions; others may have mental health or anger management issues.  Medication may make a difference for some while things like dialectical behavioral therapy or other types of therapy may work for others. By utilizing current staff and incorporating volunteers, we can address these issues in the way each inmate needs and keep costs low.  

If our data shows a program isn’t effective, I plan to replace it with a proven program that we feel confident will provided the desired results – which ultimately means keeping people from returning to prison. And while cutting recidivism may be every prison director’s goal, it’s important, but it’s not my first priority.  I’m more concerned about stopping victimization in our communities.  Recidivism will automatically be reduced when inmates learn, through front-end programming and through successful reintegration, that they can lead productive lives.  But for me, it’s more about public safety, and doing all I can to keep our friends, families and neighborhoods safe.