LINCOLN — Citing public safety concerns, Nebraska's director of corrections has put an end to a program in which prison inmates drove state vehicles.
Director Robert Houston made the announcement Friday, 10 days after an inmate driver slammed nearly head-on into a minivan driven by 47-year-old Joyce Meeks of Lincoln. The mother of three was pronounced dead at the scene.
Houston, who was out of the country when the accident happened, expressed condolences to her family.
“I can only imagine the devastating impact this tragedy has had on her family and certainly wish for them to know they have been in my thoughts,” he said.
Houston said he could not provide any new information about the accident or about Jeremy Dobbe, the 35-year-old inmate who was driving.
He cited the continuing investigation by the Lincoln Police Department, as well as lawsuits that might be filed.
Among the questions he declined to answer was whether department policy had been followed when Dobbe was approved to work as a driver.
Houston expressed confidence in the professional judgment of the corrections staff charged with sorting through inmates' criminal, driving and substance abuse history.
“There's sometimes a belief, a false belief, that everything's going to go fine” if policies and procedures are correctly followed, he said. “That's not always the case.”
State policies say “special attention” is to be paid to an inmate's driving record and chemical abuse history before granting approval.
Dobbe has two drunken-driving convictions, as well as other driving violations. His most recent DUI conviction was in 2003. The earlier one was in 1998.
Other accidents involving inmate drivers in recent years show that he is not the only one with a history of drunken driving.
Houston released information about accidents that occurred between January 2009 through the end of June. The 16 accidents involved 15 inmate drivers.
According to state motor vehicle records, six of the drivers, including Dobbe, had previous driving-under-the-influence convictions. The most recent was in 2006. The oldest was in 1990. One driver had three convictions, but all three occurred in the early 1990s.
Three drivers had clean records, and three others had one violation each.
Houston said the driving records of the 15 illustrate why he decided to end the inmate driver program.
Many inmates live reckless lives, which extends to their driving habits. About 75 percent also come into the prison system with substance abuse problems.
Looking at those facts, he said, he concluded that corrections staff should not be asked to judge which inmates could safely drive state vehicles in the community.
“I can't ask my staff any longer to pick and choose among these driving records to find the best in the box,” he said.
The inmate driver program has grown along with the number of people sentenced to the state's prisons.
Only a handful of inmates worked in the community when the program began in 1985, Houston said.
As of June, six vans and eight inmate drivers were operating seven days a week from the state Community Corrections Center in Lincoln. Three vans and three drivers were used at a similar facility in Omaha.
The inmate drivers were used when city buses were not available, including night and weekend hours. One van travels daily to the prison in Tecumseh.
Houston said that the program was successful and had no fatalities until last week.
“We've been driving millions of miles from 1985 up until now,” he said.
According to the corrections department, more than 150 inmates worked as drivers during the past 4½ years. During that time, drivers were involved in 16 accidents, including last month's fatality. Two others involved injuries, although the severity was not known.
Eight occurred on state property; the other eight were on public roads. Damage estimates ranged from $94.76 to more than $4,000. The accidents involved state vans, trucks and a forklift.
Despite the change in policy, Houston said inmates will be able to drive state vehicles on state property. Inmates on work release and authorized to drive their own or family vehicles will continue being allowed to do so.
Houston said he doesn't know why the program was started but said it has saved the state money by freeing up staff time.
Initial projections show that replacing inmate drivers with corrections employees could cost up to $320,000 a year. Houston said the department will have to find the money within its existing budget.
The State Department of Correctional Services had suspended the inmate van driver program last week while officials reviewed the program.
Witnesses said Dobbe, who is serving time in prison for dealing methamphetamine, was swerving and speeding and had run a red light and forced another vehicle off the road just before encountering Meek's vehicle.
He was initially hospitalized but was released to the state prison's Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln, where inmates are placed when they enter or re-enter the prison system or violate the conditions of their work release.
Officials with the Lancaster County Attorney's Office have said they are waiting for the results of blood and urine tests on Dobbe.