It’s that age-old question of government and politics: Who knew what and when? In the case of an independent report on the May 2015 riot at the Nebraska State Prison in Tecumseh that left two dead, that question lingers like the smell of burnt microwave popcorn.
Especially since that report just surfaced. Particularly because one has to wonder if the report’s findings could have helped prevent a March 2017 riot at the same institution that left two more inmates dead.
Really Governor, you’re excusing the fact that the report didn’t surface until November 2018 because administrators get a lot of reports and you can’t publish every one? We’re not talking about suggestions for a new vendor for pens and pencils, we’re talking about matters of life and death and a culture that thrives on control and looking for ways to hedge on the rules.
Here’s a head’s up: That’s dangerous business and the old saw about the inmates running the prison, that’s not a good thing. The Critical Incident Review Team report, made public soon after the riot, concluded the riot had happened as a matter of chance. In other words, it just happened.
The controversial undisclosed report attributed the riot to conditions at the prison that primed the inmate rebellion and said it was a coordinated effort by certain inmates and gangs. That paints a more serious problem; one that I believe would require immediate action and a different strategy. As these conditions persist, the pot continues to boil.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has defended Corrections Director Scott Frakes saying all state directors get multiple reports and write many memorandums. This second Tecumseh report was just one of the sources of advice on how to take the Corrections agency forward, he said, adding that it probably contained information that the department wasn’t going to use.
Excuse me? Then why did we pay $20,000 in taxpayer funds for a couple experts on the subject of prison riots to do a study? That’s a pretty pricey project to place on a shelf. Sadly, ignoring it will likely cause a much higher price in the long run. The lawsuits from the families of the deceased and the victims of the incident – a diabetic inmate who was left for 18 hours without food or medication – have barely started.
Ricketts says the reports are released when people ask for them. Stop. How do we ask for something we didn’t know existed? I don’t know whether I ought to laugh or scream at that one.
The previously undisclosed report was written by consultants Dan Pacholke, of the Washington State Department of Corrections, and Bert Useem, of Purdue University. They concluded conditions at the Tecumseh prison left it primed for a rebellion.
"The prison was under stress; inmates were unsettled; the 'barometric pressure' was high and rising," wrote Pacholke, formerly responsible for operations at the Washington State Department of Corrections, and Useem, a professor who has published two books on prison riots.
Their report explained that when the initial resistance took place in the prison yard on May 10, 2015, stress on the facility permitted small acts of resistance to spread quickly from the yard into two housing units and the gymnasium. The report pointed to staffing issues, apparent coordination among inmate gangs and a "somewhat disjointed" response.
--The day of the riot, the Tecumseh prison was understaffed by four, so four program areas were closed. The shift had a high concentration of relatively new, inexperienced staff, 45 percent who were hired on or after 2013.
--Too many inmates on the yard and too few staff diminished the capacity to contain the initial assault. Once the disturbance started to grow and the need for additional staff was apparent; the facility had already maximized its response and exhausted staff resources.
--The state consider changing the population of the Tecumseh prison to lower custody inmates "who would be better suited for supervision by more junior staff," and create separate housing units for different custody levels to give inmates incentives to work toward lower security levels and more opportunities for programming and activities.
--The greater a prison's orientation toward rehabilitation through case management and programming, the safer it becomes. "Giving inmates the opportunity to engage in activities they find meaningful (e.g. treatment, education, vocational training) reduces idleness and incentivizes desistance from violent and disruptive behavior."
Go back and read those six paragraphs and let the recommendations sink in. Then look at the Governor’s characterization again: This second Tecumseh report was just one of the sources of advice on how to take the Corrections agency forward, he said, adding that it probably contained information that the department wasn’t going to use.
That’s just disgusting.
It’s time for the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska Legislature to get to the bottom of who IS running the prison. Let’s just hope it’s not the inmates.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.