ACLU issues warning to Ricketts: Act now to address state prison problems or get sued

April 12, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — The ACLU of Nebraska issued an ultimatum to Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday: Take immediate action to address the state’s chronic prison overcrowding and staff shortages or get sued.

The six-page letter gave the governor 10 days to respond.

“The continued pattern of inhumane treatment and deficient conditions at (Nebraska corrections) facilities present an invitation to legal action,” stated the ACLU letter.

“Current conditions jeopardize public safety, the well being of corrections staff, and the health, safety and lives of those serving a sentence.”

The ACLU of Nebraska has threatened since at least 2014 to file a federal civil rights lawsuit unless conditions improved in the state’s prison system. But Monday’s letter appeared to serve as a final written warning before a lawsuit is filed.

“It’s more than a threat, it’s a promise,” said State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees prison issues.

Ricketts’ spokesman, Taylor Gage, said Monday the state is making steady progress to reform its prison system, following a plan laid out by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, which has helped more that two dozen states.

Gage said that the ACLU’s call to declare a prison emergency, which could result in the early release of prisoners, “is absurd and threatens public safety,” coming on the heels of recent prison disturbances.

“We call on the ACLU to support our efforts to fully fund (the agency’s) budget needs, including additional corrections officers who protect the public and inmates,” Gage said.

The letter comes three days after a violent disturbance at a Lincoln prison, and amid growing frustration among state lawmakers and front-line corrections staff. They have said that despite several studies highlighting problems within the Nebraska corrections system, little progress has been made to reduce overcrowding or reduce shortages of health care and mental health providers.

“The governor needs to declare an emergency and take steps to restore safety within our prison facilities,” said Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, who has served on more than one committee studying problems in the corrections system.

The governor has the authority to declare a prison “emergency” when the inmate population reaches 140 percent of capacity, which both Ricketts and previous Gov. Dave Heineman declined to do. Such an emergency requires the state to consider paroling inmates immediately unless they are deemed too dangerous for release.

Among the six people signing Monday’s letter from the ACLU was Michael Bien, a San Francisco attorney who helped successfully sue the State of California for overcrowded and substandard prisons.

The letter stated that the continued overcrowding of Nebraska prisons — they now hold about 2,000 more inmates than their design capacity — has led to prison riots, assaults on staff members and failure to provide rehabilitation programs for inmates.

The letter said that inmates wait months for medical and mental health care due to “woefully understaffed” facilities.

“We have reviewed mental health records of prisoners who have been taken off anti-psychotic medications and given nothing in their place, prisoners who following a serious suicide attempt have been denied mental health counseling, and prisoners who have been medicated into a nonresponsive zombie-like state,” the ACLU letter said.

In one case, an inmate waited half a year to get treatment for a “fractured bone,” according to the civil rights group.

Overall, the ACLU said Nebraska’s prison system is “too overcrowded and too understaffed to promptly and effectively deal” with inmates’ mental health and health care needs.

In addition, the letter said the Corrections Department continues to misuse solitary confinement and has at least one prison, the Lincoln Correctional Center, that is not handicapped accessible.

Ricketts has defended actions taken by his administration, which include new rehabilitation programs, some salary enhancements for corrections officers and plans to add more prison beds.

He has repeatedly said that it took years of neglect for state prisons to become overcrowded, and it will take years to turn that around.

Despite steps taken by the governor and the agency, overcrowding has increased slightly in recent weeks, assaults on staff have risen and staff vacancies have persisted. The agency now has about 148 vacancies for corrections officers, and the ACLU says there were 53 vacancies for medical and mental health staff.

In the past two months there have been three major disturbances at state prisons, including one in March in which two inmates were killed, presumably by other inmates.

On Friday, three corrections staffers were assaulted and fires were set inside a housing unit at the State Diagnostic and Evaluation Center. That is the state’s most overcrowded prison, exceeding its capacity by about 300 percent.

Dozens of inmates sleep on plastic cots spread across floors at the Lincoln prison.

paul.hammel@owh.com, 402-473-9584