LINCOLN — Amid controversy about a string of deadly incidents involving prison inmates, Nebraska's corrections director said it was time to retire from the “risk business.”
Bob Houston, 63, announced Monday that he was leaving the $132,926-a-year post after contemplating the move over the past couple of weeks.
He said he was not asked to retire, even though some supporters had questioned whether he could survive the recent controversies.
His departure comes after recently released inmates, or prisoners on work release or furloughs, were accused in six deaths in the past year.
The most recent involved a mentally troubled 26-year-old inmate with a violent record who is charged in the slayings of four people in the Omaha area over a 10-day span, shortly after his July 30 release.
Houston's retirement is effective immediately.
In a telephone interview, he declined to specifically say if the controversy prompted his retirement. But he said prison directors understand the risks of dealing with convicted felons. Despite the best risk-assessment tools and best counseling and re-entry programs, there are sometimes bad outcomes when inmates leave prison, he said.
“It's hard to explain that to the public. It's just so tragic for the families,” Houston said. “The risk assessments help ... but they don't guarantee.”
Houston leaves an agency that has the state's second-largest workforce, about 2,100, but is grappling with prison facilities that hold 4,750 inmates, about 1,600 more than capacity.
Several officials, including those with the Omaha police union, have recently called on the agency to reduce “good time” for violent inmates. The department, in response to two other incidents, already halted a program that allowed work-release inmates to drive state vans and increased notification of local agencies when an inmate receives a temporary furlough.
Overall, Houston said, the agency has done the best job it could managing a 23 percent increase in inmates over the past decade without an increase in employees.
It will be up to the next director to decide whether the state needs to build a new state prison, likely to cost more than $100 million, or if there are ways, through more use of alternatives to incarceration or quicker parole, to reduce the prison population. It stood at 149 percent of capacity last week.
An interim director has not been selected, and a plan to fill the position is not final, said Jen Rae Wang, a spokeswoman for Gov. Dave Heineman.
Houston said he had planned to retire at the end of 2014 but reconsidered that decision in recent weeks during a vacation.
Houston informed the Governor's Office on Saturday that he intended to retire but was asked to “think it over,” Wang said. Houston called back on Sunday to make his departure official.
“When you run the prison system, there's no right time to retire, because there's always something going on,” Houston said.
While one state lawmaker said it was time for Houston to go, several others said they regretted his retirement.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha asked that Houston stay on a couple of more months, at least until the state can devise a plan to address its chronic prison overcrowding and concerns over the release of Nikko Jenkins, who is charged in the four Omaha slayings.
“We can't afford to have a gap in leadership here,” Ashford said.
Except for two years spent as corrections director in Douglas County, Houston spent his entire career with the State Department of Correctional Services, beginning as a counselor in 1974.
He was appointed state director by Heineman in 2005, just a month after the governor took office.
In a press release, the governor thanked Houston for his “excellent service.”
“Bob is a well-respected professional, and I appreciate his commitment to the criminal justice system,” Heineman said.
Houston has a national reputation in corrections, serving on the executive committee of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. He also is an auditor for the American Correctional Association, judging whether corrections agencies and facilities in other states warrant national certification.
Nebraska was among a handful of states in which every corrections facility was ACA-accredited.
Houston said that even though about 1,000 more inmates are on parole now, the rate of parole violations has remained the same. Yet, he said, with more inmates in the community, that means more incidents.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a watchdog of the state prison system, said it was time for Houston to leave and for a “complete house cleaning” at the department.
The senator said the director ignored pleas from him, Jenkins' family and Jenkins himself that the inmate needed to be committed to a mental institution, not released from prison.
Chambers called Houston's handling of the case “irresponsible and reckless.”
The Omaha Police Officers' Association was among those critical of the agency's good-time procedures. But union President John Wells said he didn't put the blame entirely on Houston. Rather, Wells said, he blamed the state's push to save money “at all costs” by releasing more inmates earlier.
“Some of the efforts to ease overcrowding have adversely impacted citizens,” Wells said recently.
State Sens. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and Colby Coash of Lincoln said Houston will be missed.
“If I had a prison system with 150 percent crowding, Director Houston is the one I'd like to lead us through that,” Coash said.
Other supporters of Houston said the recent incidents were only partly the director's fault.
A former colleague and friend of Houston's said the major problem facing state corrections is overcrowding. Staffing levels and facilities have not kept up with the gusher of inmates, according to Dennis Bakewell, who retired in April after serving as a prison warden in Lincoln.
“As unpopular as it is, the real answer is we're going to have to build another prison,” Bakewell said. “No one wants to say that.”
Houston said Bakewell's comments were “spot on,” but he added that the next prison director must decide if more prison cells or more alternatives to incarceration are called for.
Several state senators said Correctional Services needs to avoid building new prisons and instead invest more money in programming that prepares and supervises inmates returning to society.
“Nebraska wants to do the right thing. But we want to do it on the cheap. And not everything can be done on the cheap, and maybe this is one of them,” said Sen. Bill Avery, who serves on an advisory committee for the State Penitentiary.