Senators pushing for progress in prisons

January 6, 2018 GMT

LINCOLN — Senators are making another run at cracking the prison overcrowding problems in Nebraska with a stack of bills being introduced this week.

The justice system oversight committee report showed that while progress has been made in the Department of Correctional Services, more work needs to be done on significant overcrowding and understaffing, said Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz.

By law, prisons must declare a crowding emergency if prisons overall are not at or lower than 140 percent of capacity or lower by July 1, 2020. If the emergency is declared, the Parole Board must reconsider inmates for accelerated release until the population reaches 125 percent of capacity.

The Legislature has a duty to examine the issues and do everything it can to support correctional officers, reduce overcrowding and ensure senators are doing everything they can to address problems brought forward by an ACLU overcrowding lawsuit, Bolz said.

Several Lincoln senators have waded into the problem of crowded prisons because Lincoln has four major prisons including the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, Lincoln Correctional Center, Nebraska State Penitentiary and Community Corrections Center of Lincoln.

Omaha also has a couple of state prisons.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said the money exists in the budget to fix many of the problems, but it would need to be reinvested in certain ways. States that, like Nebraska, have had the Council of State Governments advise them on justice reinvestment are doing well and shutting down prisons.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus also hopes that before term limits push him out of the Legislature he can help the department in some way to get off “dead center” on overcrowding problems.

“You talk and you talk. And you study and you study year after year, and you find out you’re going to study some more,” he said. “Because that seems to be the universal answer when you don’t have money and are unwilling to finance what you know you have to do.”

One of his contributions will be to amend a bill he has in the Judiciary Committee that addresses double bunking, he said. It was “absolutely unconscionable” last year to put a young man who was in prison for a fairly minor offense into a cell with an inmate who had “nothing to lose.”

Terry Berry Jr. was killed last year after he was put in a double-bunked cell at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Department Director Scott Frakes blamed Berry’s death solely on his cellmate, Patrick Schroeder, who was serving life in prison for murder.

Frakes said in October he planned to continue double-bunking inmates in solitary confinement despite Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick’s call for him to suspend the practice out of concern it increases dangers for inmates and staff.

The Legislature owes the men and women working in the Nebraska Department of Corrections a “deep gratitude and respect” for working in one of the toughest jobs that help keep the community safe, said Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart.

She and her staff did major research on prison issues over the interim she said, and it is clear the Legislature must prioritize staff retention to address high turnover, increased costs of overtime and the health of employees.

Senators are also concerned that inmates are languishing in prison because of a lack of programming.

All kinds of ideas exist to help increase programming for inmates, said Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. Think portable buildings like the schools use for classrooms, or the many volunteers in the community who are willing to help, she said.

“All of the bills we are talking about today are about preparation, planning and public safety,” Pansing Brooks said. “Ninety-six to 98 percent of those inmates are coming back into our community. Do we want them safer or not?”