ACLU and others turn up the heat on state to reduce prison overcrowding

Scott Frakes Adding beds in Lincoln is the "best first step," he said, but he needs more time to gauge prison needs.


LINCOLN — Even more pressure was applied Thursday on the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to take additional steps to address chronic overcrowding of state prisons.

A lawyer with the ACLU of Nebraska, as well as the state ombudsman and the new inspector general of corrections, all expressed doubts during a public hearing that Corrections' $26 million plan to expand a community corrections facility in Lincoln was enough to address the "crisis" in the prison agency.

Amy Miller, the ACLU's legal director, said that her civil rights organization has received documents showing that inmates are waiting far too long to just get responses to requests for mental health care.

"Three weeks later they get a note that says 'We've got you on the schedule,'" Miller said. She said that a recent federal district court ruling found that waits beyond three weeks for care are unconstitutional.

She said the ACLU plans to decide after the 2016 session of the State Legislature whether to file a civil rights lawsuit for poor care and treatment of inmates.

"We've reached our crisis point as well," Miller said.

The comments came two weeks after members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee gave a similar, skeptical reception to proposals by State Corrections Director Scott Frakes to address problems within the agency. Those issues include overcrowding, high staff turnover and a shortage of rehabilitation programs.

Frakes proposed a $30 million slate of steps, including adding 160 beds to the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, as the "best first step." But he said he wanted more time to study the agency's needs before asking for more money.

Senators then, and again on Thursday, expressed doubt that the new prison beds — which won't be available for three years and represent a net increase of 148 beds — will be enough to avoid a lawsuit and the possibility of a federal judge ordering inmates to be released from overcrowded cells.

Nebraska's prisons now stand at 159 percent of capacity and hold about 5,200 inmates.

Overcrowding above 140 percent is generally regarded as the tipping point for federal intervention.

Two weeks ago senators faulted Frakes for not providing more short-term plans to relieve overcrowding. They suggested utilizing modular housing for work-release inmates or temporarily using a now-closed jail facility in Lincoln's Air Park area.

Thursday night's public hearing was more of the same as Frakes appeared before members of the Legislature's Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, the two panels most focused on Corrections' problems.

The Corrections chief said Thursday that while he's open to other suggestions to reduce overcrowding, he wanted more time to assess what kinds of prison cells — high or low security — are needed before asking for more money. "I need more accurate information to make good decisions," he said.

Frakes said that he should be ready by this fall, when he has to submit a budget request for the next two fiscal years.

But that wasn't soon enough for some at Thursday's hearing.

State Ombudsman Marshall Lux said he liked a lot of Frakes' ideas but that building a prison warehouse and a larger dining hall as part of the $26 million plan should be dropped. That money, he said, should be used to further reduce overcrowding by using temporary, modular housing.

Doug Koebernick, a former state legislative staffer who was appointed last fall as the state's first inspector general for corrections, said that providing bonuses to retain experienced staff emerged as a top issue in an unscientific survey he conducted recently of corrections staff.

Both he and Lux said that Frakes should support a legislative proposal that would allocate an extra $2.5 million to Corrections for such bonuses.

One lawmaker, Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, questioned whether Gov. Pete Ricketts had "hamstrung" Corrections from asking for more financial help.

Ricketts was not at Thursday's hearing, but at a press conference on Tuesday he defended the approach being taken by Frakes and said that the state shouldn't be worried about a federal lawsuit.

The governor said that more prison construction will likely be necessary but that Frakes needs time to decide what type is needed.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello said he's concerned that he didn't hear anything new on Thursday about short-term solutions to overcrowding. Mello, who heads the budget-crafting Appropriations Committee, said that panel will begin discussing the budget proposals for Corrections next week.

Frakes, meanwhile, set up a meeting with Miller of the ACLU to discuss their concerns.

Miller said the new director has been very willing to meet with her organization, but added: "Whoever is telling him not to accept more money for Corrections is giving him bad advice."

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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