LINCOLN — State corrections officials drew fire in a recent report for double-bunking inmates in solitary confinement cells.
The report was in response to the April slaying of an inmate in a double-bunked cell at Tecumseh State Prison.
The state’s Inspector General of Corrections Doug Koebernick called on the state to suspend and review the practice, citing studies that conclude that placing two troubled inmates in a small cell designed for one prisoner not only increased dangers and tension for the inmates but for staff as well.
He cited a federal judge’s comments in a recent case in Alabama. The judge called double-bunking “the worst of both worlds” — crowding two inmates into one cell, yet isolating them from the rest of the prison population.
But State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, in his written response to the inspector general, rejected suspending the practice. He said the department had reviewed the double-bunking practice and plans to continue it with the required screening of cellmates for compatibility.
Frakes acknowledged that no academic studies exist to show that double-bunking is a positive practice that can improve behavior but said his 35 years of corrections experience shows that it can “be as safe as in general population.”
He blamed the death of 22-year-old inmate Terry Berry Jr. solely on his cellmate, Patrick Schroeder, 40, who was serving life in prison for murder.
“Mr. Schroeder had multiple avenues with which to address any concerns about his living situation and he chose, instead, to kill Mr. Berry,” Frakes stated.
On April 15, Berry was found unresponsive in the solitary confinement cell, which was 7 feet by 12 feet and 7 inches.
Schroeder, who has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the case, has said he assaulted Berry because he was a punk who wouldn’t shut up.
Solitary confinement, or “restrictive housing,” is where disruptive and dangerous inmates are sent when they break the rules or are a threat to themselves or others.
Nationally, double-bunking such cells is seen as risky, though several states and county jails do it, mostly to deal with overcrowding and slim budgets.
Nebraska, which has the second-most-overcrowded state prisons in the U.S., has double-bunked cells in solitary confinement in three other state prisons besides Tecumseh.
Immediately after Berry’s slaying, some state senators questioned the practice, particularly the pairing of an older lifer with a young, talkative inmate who was about to be released on parole. Berry had been sentenced to prison for check fraud and kneeing a guard.
The use of solitary confinement, which has been shown to exacerbate mental troubles and illnesses, has also drawn concern from state lawmakers, who passed a law in 2015 seeking to reduce its use.
That has led to changes that emphasize alternatives to punishing inmates other than sending them “to the hole” for up to 23 hours a day. Corrections reported Wednesday that the average daily population in restrictive housing was 347 during the past fiscal year, a reduction of 11 percent.
Koebernick’s report, released late last month, indicated that some prison staff had concerns about pairing Schroeder and Berry. Berry was known as “very talkative and bothersome,” the report said, while Schroeder was known for his temper and a history of assaultive behavior, and had spent an extensive amount of his 10 years in prison in solitary confinement.
The decision to pair the two inmates was made by two unit managers after filling out a required worksheet to assess their compatibility. The manager, however, failed to fill in a required statement about how double-bunking the pair provided “reasonable safety from assault” for the inmates, Koebernick said.
He also expressed concern that staff had threatened the two inmates with double-bunking if they didn’t comply with directives.
Koebernick, whose job is to oversee and report on state prison conditions and reforms, made six recommendations to corrections, including suspending the use of double-bunking until two advisory committees could review the practice.
He also asked prison officials to review why Berry was being housed in a solitary confinement cell at a maximum-security prison, calling it “hardly … the optimum setting.”
Frakes, in response, said the reviews had been conducted and that corrections had added daily checks of double-bunked inmates in solitary to hear of any problems.
State Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, who introduced the bill to reduce the use of solitary confinement, said the practice appears to be “alive and well,” just under a different name, “restrictive housing.”
“We haven’t dedicated near the amount of money we need to for the prison system,” Schumacher said.
He added that there’s been a lot of political “spin” associated with the state’s multiple prison problems that should be sorted out via a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Nebraska.
“That (federal court) system is fairly good at separating out the truth from the politics,” the senator said.