Police recently arrested an inmate who walked away from the Nebraska Department of Corrections Work Ethic Camp in McCook 11 months ago. He was arrested in Chadron, 292 miles away.
I can’t begin to speculate why the inmate walked away from what is easily the “least prison-like” of all the facilities in the state prison system. His escape (the front door of the place is unlocked) and capture were small potatoes in a system that is the second most overcrowded in the United States. But it is indicative of the myriad of on-going problems that have plagued corrections for years.
On top of everything else -- staff shortages; riots; inmate assaults on guards and inmate assaults on other inmates; five murders – the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the department. In its annual report, the DOC indicates that Nebraska's prison population inched up more than a percentage point in the fourth quarter of the state's 2017 fiscal year to 161 percent of capacity.
That’s an average daily prison population of 5,278 people. The ACLU of Nebraska lawsuit in U.S. District Court was filed on behalf of 11 prisoners, based on crowding, problems with access to medical, mental and dental health care, and conditions in the prisons. ACLU Executive Director Danielle Conrad says the updated numbers show the overcrowding crisis is not improving, and in fact continues to grow, and with it the backlog for rehabilitation programs and medical services.
Lawmakers passed sentencing reform in 2015 and 2016 aimed at reducing the population. Conrad says the whole situation undercuts the disappointing response (to the lawsuit) from Governor Ricketts and shows why he needs to declare an emergency immediately.
Ricketts says all three branches of government have made justice reinvestment and prison reform a top priority, and have invested millions of taxpayer dollars to protect public safety and expand state prisons.
Excuse me, which would be less costly and easier to obtain? Fewer inmates or more prisons. I’m not advocating that we fling the doors wide open and allow those guilty of the most serious crimes -- sex offenses, drug-related assaults, use of weapons and homicide – to walk out. But lawmakers should take a hard look at sentencing guidelines to change who goes to prison.
Why, for example, do we incarcerate someone who is behind on child support? Taking them away from the ability to earn money to pay it just doesn’t make sense. Likewise, drunk drivers who could benefit from treatment outside prison walls are instead sent to prison to sit in a cell and await a chance to get into an already overcrowded treatment program. Some never do and simply jam their time.
The ACLU lawsuit asks that the Nebraska Department of Corrections and the Nebraska Board of Parole immediately address overcrowding, and the lack of adequate medical, dental and mental health care, as well as provide accommodations for prisoners who are blind, deaf, hard-of-hearing or have other disabilities.
The state took the opportunity in its response to the court to comment on the public scrutiny, attention and criticism it has been subjected to by officials, lawmakers, advocates and journalists. There's been much scrutiny of the complex prison system, the state said, and criticism leveled against it related to crowding, health care, management, programming and staffing.
Some of it, the state said, has been constructive and has contributed to meaningful improvements. But some has not been warranted, and inaccurately portrayed the prison system.
Bull. The state would do well to read the inscription chiseled in the Indiana limestone façade of the State Capitol, which reads: “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness of the Citizen.” That quote is attributed to Hartley Burr Alexander, a professor of philosophy who was one of the Capitol’s designers. He said it’s something he learned from his father.
I gladly support the public scrutiny, attention and criticism leveled at the DOC by officials, lawmakers, advocates and journalists. As a journalist, it’s my job, thank you.
Oh, and then there’s the matter of the Department of Corrections and the Executive and Judicial branches rushing to carry out the first execution in 20 years. Killing one bad guy is going to do little, if anything, to solve the complex issues that deserve our undivided attention.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 18 years.