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The plea for assistance came earlier this month in a letter from Nebraska State Penitentiary inmate David Gills. 

Attached to the letter were 31 pages of signatures from men living in 10 housing units at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, on a petition circulated beginning at the end of October. 

Signatures of 780 men, 58% of the penitentiary population of the 1,346, recorded as of Nov. 13. 

The petition went to the Journal Star, ACLU of Nebraska, the state ombudsman, inspector general for Corrections, Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes, the Nebraska Parole Board, the state attorney general's office and the Omaha World-Herald. 

The petition complained about the "inconsistent and wayward actions" of the penitentiary's administrators in putting the prison in a modified lockdown that the inmates believe had no good cause. Because of the lockdown, meetings of self-betterment clubs or organizations were limited or eliminated, and inmates were restricted from use of the prison law library. 

That restriction, the petition said, impedes prisoners' access to the courts, attorneys, legislators, judges and other legal sources. 

In signing the petition, the men said they were unhappy with procedures, arbitrary decisions and findings of the prison disciplinary committees.

Breakfast comes in a sack brought to cells at about 6 p.m. the night before. The amount of food is too small and not very nutritious, the petition said, and the sacks are stacked together and the food smashed, inmates have told the ombudsman's office.

Shop workers' access to showers after work is restricted; there is sporadic access to yard and recreational time. Religious practices are impeded, and morale is low among both inmates and staff. 

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"The past year here at NSP has been terrible," the petition said. "We, inmates (have) suffered the most!"

The petition put the word terrible in all caps with four exclamation marks.

It cited multiple changes in policies, procedures, rules, memorandums, protocols and inmate movement as problems. 

Department spokeswoman Laura Strimple said in answer to questions about the petition that the department had not received it.

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The inmates signed and sent out the petition because outside interventions were needed immediately, they said. 

"Any and all inputs, feedback, in all shapes, fashions and forms would be duly appreciated," Gills said in his letter. 

The Nebraska Ombudsman's office received the petition and sent a letter to Frakes about conditions at the prison, said acting Ombudsman Carl Eskridge. He asked to meet with the department to go over some of the issues it was hearing from inmates. 

Eskridge and other deputy ombudsmen also met with inmate councils representing maximum- and minimum-security prisoners at the prison. 

He said he hoped, with the 12-hour shifts starting at Tecumseh, too, but without the modified lockdown the penitentiary experienced, that declarations of emergencies from staffing shortages and limits that come with them aren't becoming the new normal for other prisons that have staffing shortages. 

"There are going to be consequences of this in terms of behaviors, and could impact people's parole access and success," he said. "There's a lot of concerns."  

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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