After inmate uprising, Nebraska legislators talk of re-forming committee to investigate prison problems

Post Date: April 10, 2017

As seen via via the Scottsbluff Star Herald

Another inmate uprising at a Nebraska prison has two key state lawmakers considering whether to resurrect a special legislative committee to investigate the recent disturbances, as well as lingering problems with overcrowded cells and high staff turnover.

State Sens. Bob Krist of Omaha and Laura Ebke of Crete both said Saturday the state’s troubled prison system is struggling to show progress and, meanwhile, is confronted with an increase in inmate disturbances.

“Every time it feels like they’re starting to dig out, something happens,” said Ebke, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

Krist, who has served on multiple committees that dealt with state prison woes, said State Corrections Director Scott Frakes seems to be doing the right things, “but while he’s doing that, Rome is burning. And that’s concerning.”

In response, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts said lawmakers should focus on fully funding the budget requests for corrections, not on another investigation.

“The Department of Corrections needs our support to further its reforms,” said spokesman Taylor Gage. “Now is not the time for more micromanagement.”

The two state senators spoke a day after 16 inmates assaulted three prison staff members and started fires at the State Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln, the state’s most overcrowded prison facility.

It took almost two hours for corrections officers, along with Lincoln Fire and Rescue and the Nebraska State Patrol, to retake control of a 39-inmate housing unit.

Prison officials said the affected unit houses people with multiple adult felony incarcerations, who have violated parole, and who typically are violent, aggressive and-or predatory.

State Corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said it was too early to assess the cost of the damage, but said the affected housing unit was expected to be cleaned up and usable by Saturday night.

Friday marked the third prison melee in the past six weeks. Two inmates were killed during a riot on March 2 at the Tecumseh State Prison after corrections officers were assaulted and had to abandon part of a medium/maximum-security housing unit. On March 15, four officers were injured at the same housing unit.

No arrests have been made in connection with the March 2 slayings, nor for the killings of two inmates during a riot on Mother’s Day 2015 at Tecumseh.

Despite efforts to increase the use of parole, reform prison sentences and house some inmates in county jails, overcrowding of all state prisons has risen slightly in recent weeks — to 160 percent of designed capacity. The 5,243 inmates are nearly 2,000 more than the state’s 10 prisons were designed to hold.

The Diagnostic and Evaluation Center on Saturday held nearly three times as many inmates (473) as its designed capacity (160).

Krist said overcrowding, and high levels of security staff turnover and job vacancies, all affect the department’s ability to provide rehabilitation programs and keep staff and inmates safe.

The Legislature formed a special legislative committee in 2014 to look at overcrowding, mistaken sentence calculations and use of solitary confinement. But it was disbanded at the end of last year.

Ebke, who chaired the committee, said she wants more specifics on what a new investigative panel hopes to discover before resurrecting it.

“I told Scott Frakes recently that I’m not sure he doesn’t have the worst job in the state right now,” the senator said of the Corrections Department director. “He has a department, which for a long time was really sort of ignored. He’s really behind the eight ball in a lot of ways.”

The two senators were among four lawmakers who signed a letter Friday urging the budget-writing Appropriations Committee to stick with its recommendation to pare back a request to fund more corrections officers.

Ebke and Krist said it made no sense for the state to fund 96 additional corrections officer positions when the department has about 148 officer slots that are vacant now.

The two lawmakers said it made more sense to provide merit or longevity raises for corrections officers, something that officers have sought for years to improve retention of experienced staff.

The Appropriations Committee last week decided to cut in half the request to hire 48 corrections officers in each of the next two years, citing budget problems and the high number of current vacancies.

Ricketts has said he was “greatly disturbed” by the cut, given that improving corrections is a high priority of his administration and that lawmakers have been saying they’ll give the agency everything it needs to solve its problems.