LAS VEGAS -- The discovery of a pregnant inmate has prompted officials to begin testing the state's female prisoners, an unprecedented move that drew criticism Thursday from civil rights groups.
Officials began giving pregnancy tests Tuesday to the state's estimated 750 female inmates depending on age and medical condition, said Howard Skolnik, assistant director of the Nevada Department of Corrections.
The decision followed a 24-year-old inmate's claim that a corrections officer impregnated her at the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Facility in North Las Vegas.
"When you have someone who has been in prison for 21 months, you either have an immaculate conception or you have a problem," Skolnik said.
The tests are part of an investigation to determine whether the pregnancy was an isolated incident or evidence of a larger problem, Skolnik said. It's the first time the state has required all female prisoners capable of conceiving a child to undergo a pregnancy test.
"We don't know whether or not we have a serious problem," he said. "We'd rather not wait and hope things are OK. We're taking a very proactive position with this."
Skolnik said Thursday the inmate has been transferred to a medical facility in Carson City. Skolnik also said the corrections officer involved in the case had resigned.
He was placed initially on paid administrative leave by Corrections Corporation of America, a Nashville, Tenn.-based firm that manages the prison.
A receptionist for the private prison company in Las Vegas referred media calls to the Nevada Department of Corrections.
The corrections officer could face criminal charges under a Nevada law that makes it a felony to have sexual relations with an inmate even if it is consensual.
Scott Olifant, who represents the inmate, said he was not surprised to hear about the statewide tests.
"Surely if this was truly an isolated incident, it would not make sense to spend all the money to perform the tests much less all the time," Olifant said.
But Gary Peck, executive director for the ACLU of Nevada, said the decision by corrections officials to conduct statewide tests is a cause for concern.
"You can do these tests that will tell you nothing about the overall number of people who have had sexual relations with staff, that will tell you nothing about the number who have been raped or assaulted by staff," Peck said.
Peck suggested corrections officials should focus on educational efforts directed toward correction officers and inmates to prevent sexual contact of any kind inside the state's prisons.
Corrections Corp. designed, built and has operated the prison since its opening in 1997. It's the only prison in Nevada that is run by a private firm. There are 430 inmates housed at the prison.
State corrections officials said the investigation is expected to last a few months and will include interviews with inmates and staff. Skolnik said corrections officers undergo training in inmate-staff relations and inmates are instructed about how to file complaints against officers.
Widney Brown, deputy program director for Human Rights Watch, a national advocacy group, said the widespread testing is problematic.
"By testing the women they're putting women in a very awkward position without their consent," Brown said. "They don't have the right to say no."
On the Net:
Nevada Department of Corrections, http://www.doc.nv.gov/
Corrections Corporation of America, http://www.correctionscorp.com/