First in the World-Herald
LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts says Nebraska has the right plan and the right leader in place to solve the state’s prison crisis.
In his first in-depth interview since a deadly prison uprising 18 days ago, the governor told The World-Herald that he’s focused on changing prisons from human warehouses to places where offenders obtain the education, job training and behavioral treatment they need to live productively upon their release. Slash re-offense rates, he said, and taxpayers will save money, prisons will be safer and the public will be better protected.
The governor asked for more time to fix problems that have emerged over decades. But he touted his vision as a way to address severe overcrowding, persistent staffing shortages and other factors that contributed to a pair of deadly prison disturbances since 2015. The most recent of the uprisings left two inmates dead on March 2.
He also insisted that the efforts by all three branches of state government are starting to move the needle in the right direction, while he acknowledged much work remains to be done.
“Our job is to … protect people, whether it’s corrections officers or inmates,” Ricketts said. “We have to make changes so tragedies like this don’t happen again.”
The governor said he remains fully confident that Scott Frakes is “the right man” to lead the ongoing changes in the Department of Correctional Services. Ricketts hired the veteran corrections professional from Washington state two years ago, following a privately funded national search.
Others, however, say the state can no longer wait for measures that result in incremental improvements to a system that currently stands at 159 percent of design capacity. The ACLU of Nebraska has threatened to launch litigation that could compel the governor to declare an emergency and release hundreds of inmates.
State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, who has been involved with the three-branch effort, said he thinks the governor is engaged and understands the importance of sticking to the plan to complete the reforms. Krist disagreed with those who say the governor needs to declare an emergency now, saying there is still time for the changes to reduce overcrowding.
Krist also called the corrections director a valuable member of the steering committee that helps guide the work for the reform effort. But the senator also said responsibility for the deadly uprisings and other violent incidents ultimately rests with Frakes.
“Someone has to be accountable for the things that have happened at Tecumseh,” he said. “Where’s the accountability?”
The governor said solutions won’t be found by throwing more money at corrections than he has already requested, nor does Nebraska need a new prison, estimated to cost $262 million. He said the department has adequate funding to fill staffing vacancies but it still struggles to do so.
“Long term, the real solution is not building another prison,” Ricketts said, “it’s building a prison system that’s actually effective.”
When Ricketts assumed office in 2015 he inherited an already overcrowded prison system still reeling from a pair of scandals: the mismanagement of inmate Nikko Jenkins, who killed four Omaha residents shortly after his 2013 release; and a series of sentencing miscalculations uncovered by The World-Herald that led to the improper releases of hundreds of inmates.
“Frankly, our corrections system had been underinvested for a long time,” Ricketts said.
On May 10, 2015, long-simmering tensions at the Tecumseh State Prison erupted in the worst inmate uprising seen in Nebraska in six decades. Two inmates were killed, two officers suffered injuries and more than $2 million in damage was done to the 960-bed facility in what has been called the Mother’s Day riot.
More high-profile incidents followed.
Last spring, two inmates with a history of violence escaped from the Lincoln Correctional Center. One was arrested the next day in Lincoln after he assaulted a woman, and the other was arrested without incident while hiding at a residence in Omaha.
The same Lincoln prison was the site of another disturbance in August, when nine staff members were assaulted after at least a dozen prison inmates refused to return to their cells from an exercise yard.
Then, on March 2, roughly 40 inmates took over half of a maximum-security housing unit at the Tecumseh prison. By the time prison authorities and state troopers regained control of the housing unit more than three hours later, two inmates had been killed.
Violence flared at the prison once again last week, when four corrections officers were assaulted by inmates. Two of the officers sought outside medical treatment.
Ricketts and Frakes both declined to release new information on the March 2 incident, saying the matter remains under investigation by the Nebraska State Patrol. Charges have not yet been filed in connection with the 2015 homicides at Tecumseh.
The department has called in an outside team from the National Institute of Corrections to conduct a detailed review of the recent fatal disturbance, which Frakes has said did not meet the definition of a riot. The review team will start Monday and is expected to be in Nebraska for about a week.
A similar analysis of the 2015 riot led to significant efforts to better train and equip corrections staff. For the first time, the department also instituted a management training program, the governor added.
Ricketts said it’s important for corrections officials to learn from the latest incident. And while there is always room for improvement, he said he thinks the response to the March 2 melee shows that lessons have been learned since 2015.
He called prison employees “heroic” for the daily work they do with some of “the most dangerous people we have in our society.” When he traveled to Tecumseh on the night of the recent incident, he said, he sensed that corrections officers were confident and in control of the situation.
“It was a terrible tragedy when two inmates were murdered in that incident,” Ricketts said. “But I can tell you, Director Frakes’ team reacted much better this time than they did two years ago.”
Still, the distance — 50 to 70 miles — that separates Tecumseh from some of the emergency team members who work in Omaha and Lincoln does slow down the response to a crisis, Frakes said. When asked if it was a mistake to locate the prison in a rural area, Ricketts said he wasn’t going to “Monday-morning quarterback” a decision made in the late 1990s by previous elected officials.
Nonetheless, corrections officials are considering the possibility of moving some of the higher-risk inmates from the Tecumseh prison to maximum-security facilities in Lincoln, Frakes said.
The governor said his goals for improving Corrections run parallel to the work being done by the 23-member Justice Reinvestment Implementation Coordinating Committee. The committee involves his administration, the Legislature and the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Key reforms include sentencing changes aimed at keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison; parole guidelines to ensure that serious felons get at least nine months of post-release supervision; and graduated sanctions that can be used for probation violations instead of sending people to prison.
The Supreme Court’s role in the prison reform process has been to expand probation and community programming to provide for the supervision of more offenders who would have been incarcerated in the past.
Delays in implementing the changes have led to a slower decline in the prison population than had been predicted by outside consultants who have helped other states reduce overcrowding. Earlier this month the prison population stood at 5,236. That number had decreased by 156 inmates since the reforms were enacted in 2015.
The goal is to cut the prison population by an additional 865 inmates in three years. That would put the system below 140 percent of capacity, a benchmark used by federal courts to intervene.
Meanwhile, staffing problems continue to plague the Corrections Department, particularly in Tecumseh. It has proved difficult to recruit and retain employees at the rural prison, and staffing shortages lead to 12-hour shifts and mandatory overtime.
The department has used additional appropriations to raise salaries for critical positions and has offered bonuses for staff who successfully help recruit new employees. There has been a focus on more rigorous training for new officers that includes pairing them with an experienced officer as a mentor.
The governor said they’re also looking at adding more professional opportunities for employees, a bonus for those willing to travel to Tecumseh and creating a fitness center as a perk.
The efforts are showing some hopeful signs, Frakes said. Turnover rates have dropped from an annual rate of 32 percent to 28 percent over the past several months, he explained.
The $20 million budget increase for corrections that the governor has requested for the next two fiscal years would help pay for 165 new full-time positions. It also would pay for improved security measures and new equipment, such as cameras, radios and better gear for critical incident team members.
The legislative committee that sets the state budget has recommended approval of the governor’s request.
Ricketts commended the Legislature for providing the Corrections Department with adequate funding. During the interview, the governor emphasized that he has sought to fully fund Corrections at a time when the state needs to close a substantial budget gap.
A common complaint from inmates and their families is that they are treated with disrespect by corrections officers and other staff members. Ricketts encouraged those with specific complaints to report them to corrections officials or his office.
During the past two years, the department has started close to 20 new programs to offer more behavior assistance, vocational training and educational opportunities for inmates. Corrections also instituted councils intended to improve communications between the department personnel, inmates and their families.
One limitation to more and better inmate programming is a lack of space in the prison buildings. But Ricketts said his administration has been working to build more space with his budget requests over the past two years.
The state has invested $26 million toward a 160-bed expansion to the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln along with a 100-bed dormitory at the same facility. In his current budget request, the governor has sought a $75 million transfer from the state’s cash reserve to build a prison addition for elderly and mentally ill inmates.
It’s critical that inmates participate in the program so they can make the transition to life outside the prison walls, Ricketts said. He and other policymakers would love to see programming efforts lead to a sharp decline in the demand for prison cells.
“This is a business where you don’t want repeat business,” he said. “We don’t want people coming back in.”