Douglas County corrections officials are tightening safety policies at the jail following two guard assaults — one involving Erica Jenkins, a sister of slaying suspect Nikko Jenkins.
Officers will “harden” more cells at the jail — remove top bunks and other items that could impede an officer in the event of an assault — and step up safety training, Douglas County Corrections Lt. Pat West said.
They'll also use more restrictive “come-along” restraints on about 15 inmates who have a history of aggression and violence, West said. The jail had been looking at using these restraints anyway, he said, and the assaults gave them a good reason to start.
The first assault occurred Sept. 5, when Erica Jenkins became combative after a court hearing, kicking and head-butting corrections officer Walter Barbee, according to an incident report.
Two days later, inmate Timothy J. Britt punched corrections officer Daniel Widman several times in the face, drawing blood and possibly breaking his nose, according to law enforcement reports.
Erica Jenkins was charged with third-degree assault on an officer, a felony.
Britt, who was jailed in 2012 in connection with the slayings of a South Omaha man and his two teenage sons, faces the same charge.
The attack on Widman was the 24th felony assault reported at the jail this year, and the 12th in which a corrections officer was the victim, according to law enforcement records.
An assault on a guard typically occurs once or twice a month, a number that rises with the inmate population, Douglas County Corrections Director Mark Foxall said. Guard assaults spiked in 2009, when admissions were up about 14 percent from the previous year, he said.
A few assaults have been severe enough that the guards were treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Foxall said one factor feeding the violence is the increasing number of inmates who are mentally ill — and the increasing severity of their symptoms.
“That puts my staff at risk,” Foxall said. “It's something we talk about every day.”
Inmates are screened for health and mental problems upon entry, and those who show violent tendencies are segregated. But inmates with mental illness are not automatically separated.
Travis Sears, president of the union that represents the guards, said a certain amount of violence is expected when dealing with “society's worst.” But he said attitudes toward the job have changed in recent years.
“Used to be, getting punched in the face was just part of the job,” he said.
Sears credits jail administrators with being receptive to officers' suggestions about improving safety. The recent changes were suggested at a weekly lieutenants' meeting.
Sears also credits County Attorney Don Kleine's office with prosecuting guard assaults more aggressively.
Corrections officer Mike Trapp and Roy Wilson, a retired officer, act as court liaisons. They helped develop a protocol for prosecuting inmates who assault guards, and they work closely with deputy county attorney Tom McKenney to shepherd the cases through the system, Kleine said.
“They make sure the court understands the situation, what these officers who work at the correctional facility go through every day,” Kleine said.