Nebraska prisons chief says he withheld report on Tecumseh riot for safety reasons

Nebraska prisons chief says he withheld report on Tecumseh riot for safety reasons
Scattered debris and other damage is shown in Housing Unit 2 at the Tecumseh State Prison after a May 2015 riot. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — The state corrections director says he didn’t disclose a report on a 2015 prison riot because of concerns that its revelations about organized gangs at the Tecumseh State Prison could lead to safety threats to staff, inmates and the public.

“In an environment like (corrections), it is … essential that certain information remain protected,” said Scott Frakes, in a letter to state lawmakers dated Friday.

Frakes’ explanation is sure to draw questions from legislators at a special meeting Tuesday, called to explore why the report, which blamed inaction by corrections officials for helping spark the Mother’s Day riot, didn’t become public until recently.

The riot, the worst in the state in a half-century, left two inmates dead and more than $2 million in damage.

A public report issued shortly after the riot said the uprising began by chance. But the second report, previously undisclosed, came to a different conclusion. It blamed corrections officials for housing certain inmates near each other and for a shortage of inmate activities. There was an atmosphere of “defiance” in the prison, the report says, as well as coordination and cooperation by two prison gangs that was not recognized.

Frakes, in his letter, said he alone had asked for the second report, produced by Washington State prison administrator Dan Pacholke and Purdue University sociologist Bert Useem. At the time, Frakes was new to the job — he had been hired only two months before the riot after a lengthy career in corrections in Washington State — and said he wanted more information.

One thing the second report made clear, according to Frakes, was that there was a “complicated and highly organized gang problem” at the prison. It reinforced the need for a “centralized intelligence network” within the prisons to identify possible gang threats and head off problems before a riot occurred, he said.

Frakes said he didn’t share the study “directly” with other members of his agency but incorporated what he learned from Pacholke and Useem in legislative testimony, as well as in communication with the press and staff. A gang intelligence unit was created.

State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who heads the two corrections-related committees that will meet Tuesday, said she didn’t find the letter “terribly forthcoming” but added that Frakes may not be free to elaborate because lawsuits facing the agency over the riot.

Frakes, because of a vacation, cannot attend Tuesday’s meeting, so he offered the letter. Ebke said Pacholke and Useem will testify, as well as former Tecumseh Warden Brian Gage.

The existence of the Pacholke/Useem report wasn’t known until it was disclosed by surprise during a recent trial over the 2015 riot.

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