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State watchdog calls conditions at State Penitentiary 'alarming' and 'disturbing'

LINCOLN — Staff shortages, record-high overtime and the existence of the synthetic drug K2 and other contraband have made the State Penitentiary potentially the most troubled prison in Nebraska, according to a recent memo from a state legislative watchdog.

Doug Koebernick, the inspector general for corrections, used terms like “alarming” and “disturbing” to describe conditions at the State Penitentiary, the state’s largest prison. It holds about 1,300 inmates, ranging from maximum to minimum custody.

He said problems at the penitentiary in Lincoln may now exceed those at the Tecumseh State Prison, which has been the site of two deadly riots since 2015.

The director of the state prison system, Scott Frakes, said in a statement that a broad labor shortage is affecting the Corrections Department as well as other occupations and that prisons across the country are struggling to hire and keep staff. The department recently offered hiring and referral bonuses, and provided a pay raise, in hopes of turning around staffing problems.

“The bottom line is that in an economy where unemployment is low, and opportunities abound, it is challenging to fill vacancies,” Frakes said.

But State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who led a special legislative probe into problems at Corrections in 2015, said that the steps being taken by the department are “insufficient” and that unless the demand for overtime, including mandatory overtime ordered at the last minute, is reduced, staffing problems will just get worse.

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“(Corrections) is not competing well with other kinds of work that involves the same skill set,” Lathrop said. Workers, he said, can get better wages, not be ordered to work mandatory overtime shifts, and not sacrifice their family life at other places, including county jails in Nebraska.

Koebernick, in an eight-page memo sent Monday, said that conditions might be the worst at the penitentiary because overcrowding is much higher than at Tecumseh — about 180% of design capacity at the penitentiary versus 105% at Tecumseh. There also appears, he said, to be more banned contraband within the Lincoln facility, including cell phones and K2, a synthetic form of marijuana that has been linked to some recent assaults behind bars.

Among the concerns expressed in the report:

  • Overtime worked by “protective services staff,” the officers and corporals who guard the inmates, has risen sharply in recent months, and was 45% higher than in February.
  • There are 77 vacant positions among security staff, the highest number in at least two years, leading to more mandatory and voluntary overtime.
  • Eighteen times since early July, the penitentiary operated at or below “critical” staffing, a minimum staffing level that requires some activities, such as at the library, school or gym, to be shut down.
  • On more than one occasion, an entire shift of protective services staff — typically the overnight shift — was ordered to stay to fill vacant posts on the day shift. Koebernick said that some security employees work three 16-hour shifts a week and that one worker told him he had worked 80 hours in one week.
  • In May, 31 inmates at the penitentiary requested protective custody — a cell segregated from the rest of the inmates — which is a sign of a “troubled institution,” the inspector general said. The number of requests was three times higher than at Tecumseh.

Across the prison system, overtime worked by employees peaked at 50,000 hours in June, according to the report, which is the highest level since the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Mother’s Day uprising at the Tecumseh prison, which left two inmates dead and resulted in a housing unit being trashed and scorched.

More coverage: Riot at Tecumseh State Prison

Staffing problems have plagued the Nebraska prison system in recent years, especially at Tecumseh, a farm town about an hour’s drive from both Omaha and Lincoln. In recent months, 60 workers a day have been bused from Omaha to fill the ranks at Tecumseh.

But why is it hard to hire corrections staff in Lincoln, a growing city of 284,000?

Frakes was not available for comment, but Koebernick said it’s possible that the pool of potential prison workers in Lincoln, which has four state prison facilities, isn’t as large as once thought.

A Corrections Department spokeswoman, Laura Strimple, said Tuesday she did not know if busing workers from Omaha was being considered to fill posts at the penitentiary. She did say that meals, lodging and transportation costs have been provided to some prison workers from McCook to fill empty posts in Lincoln. Koebernick said some staff from the Lincoln Correctional Center have been used to fill posts at the penitentiary.

In April, state prison officials announced a $3,000 hiring bonus for the first 100 new employees hired at four state prisons, including the penitentiary and Tecumseh, as well as financial incentives for staff to refer a new hire. Strimple said that the hiring bonus is still available and that extending it is under consideration.

A job fair will be held next Tuesday at the penitentiary, she added, and Corrections continues an advertising campaign to attract new recruits.

Koebernick issued a report in October 2018 about deteriorating conditions at the penitentiary. He said the most recent memo was spurred by an incident in July in which the penitentiary lacked enough staff to allow inmate visitation, and a July 10 visit to the prison that was scrubbed because there were no staff available to accompany him.

The 12 men on Nebraska’s death row and their crimes

Trump holds Oval Office meeting in effort to calm farm-state uproar over recent policy moves

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump presided over a lengthy Oval Office meeting Monday in which he urged officials to soften the effect of recent policy moves that have angered Midwestern farm states critical to his reelection.

The Trump administration was stung by criticism over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Aug. 9 decision to give 31 refineries exemptions from annual biofuel-blending requirements — including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s assertion that the Trump administration had “screwed” farmers.

Trump suggested rescinding some of the newly granted waivers during the Monday meeting, according to four people familiar with the discussions who asked not to be named. Trump was told the waivers may not be reversible, but officials offered other ideas to mitigate the political effect in Iowa, a state he carried in 2016 and needs to win again in 2020 if he is to keep the Oval Office.

Administration officials suggested expanding environmental credits that encourage production of “flex-fuel” vehicles that can run on high-ethanol gasoline and requiring government agencies to use more of them — both steps that could increase the use of corn in fuels.

The White House media office had no comment.

The flurry of discussions is in keeping with the president’s practice of searching for compromises on thorny topics from a border wall to the tax overhaul, sometimes endorsing new ideas that haven’t been deeply vetted. For instance, Trump stunned Republican leaders and some of his own staff when he temporarily sided with top Democrats on federal spending in September 2017.

Monday’s back-and-forth illustrates an intensifying clash over U.S. biofuel policy that pits two of Trump’s top political constituencies — farmers and oil interests — against each other. The administration is divided, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture favoring farmers and the EPA insisting that the law compels them to waive the requirement for refineries facing economic harm.

The meeting Monday with Trump was ostensibly to discuss trade with China but quickly turned into a fuels discussion because the U.S. ambassador to China, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, had just spent a few days in the state and was concerned about the harm he believed the waivers will cause rural America.

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The meeting, described as lively and spanning roughly two hours, included Branstad, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Stephen Censky, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and National Security Council official Matthew Pottinger. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler joined by phone.

During the session and at least one follow-up call, administration officials discussed broad policy changes designed to mollify farm-state critics and expand the market for corn-based ethanol. At one point, Branstad wondered whether the U.S. could mandate that auto companies make all vehicles capable of running on a variety of fuels, so consumers can choose what to use. The idea was quickly rebuffed, with one person in the meeting warning that it would provoke a big fight with automakers.

Among the other options discussed: fuel-policy changes designed to make E15 gasoline, which contains 15% ethanol, a new nationwide standard, replacing the 10% variety that is now commonplace.

The EPA in May lifted restrictions on E15 gasoline that blocked widespread summertime sales, but fewer than 2,000 stations offer that blend, much less E85 gasoline, containing 85% ethanol. Flex-fuel vehicles are capable of using both, but limited consumer interest has discouraged widespread adoption.

It is not clear that any of the ideas will materialize. Since 2017, Trump has tried to broker a compromise on biofuel policy between warring ethanol and oil industry interests, but the design of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard makes it nearly impossible to satisfy both stakeholders simultaneously. And many of the ideas advanced Monday would require congressional action or lengthy federal rule-making; some even conflict with regulatory changes already under way.

Moreover, some of the proposals would benefit ethanol but do little to address concerns by U.S. biodiesel makers that use soybean oil as a feedstock and whose footprint extends beyond the Corn Belt.

Another idea under consideration is boosting the amount of biodiesel and conventional renewable fuel the EPA will require refiners to use over the next two years to compensate for expected waivers — effectively forcing nonexempt refineries to make up for the lost quotas. Perdue, the agriculture secretary, has pushed the idea for months, against opposition from EPA officials and oil companies.

The White House discussions center on a 14-year-old federal law dictating that oil refineries use biofuel, such as corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel, to satisfy annual quotas set by the EPA. The law authorizes the EPA to issue exemptions for small refineries facing a “disproportionate economic hardship,” but biofuel proponents argue the administration has handed out the waivers too freely and is undermining domestic demand for the products.

The EPA decided to grant 31 exemptions from 2018 biofuel-blending quotas — and deny six other applications — following months of internal deliberations and after Trump intervened to authorize the move. But the president said Monday he felt misled by the high number of approvals, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Our best photos, July 2019


Sweltering heat didn't keep a man from stretching his legs Tuesday afternoon at Wehrspann Lake in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area. The heat index Tuesday peaked at 110 in Omaha, 115 in the Millard area and 117 in Council Bluffs, according to the National Weather Service. With rain and a cool front bringing relief, today's high should feel about 30 degrees cooler. A chance of rain is in the forecast the rest of the week.

Public response is mixed on proposed La Vista restaurant tax, but City Council is largely in favor

A majority of La Vista City Council members appear to have an appetite for a restaurant tax.

The response to the city’s proposed 1.5% tax included a small, balanced mix of supporters and opponents Tuesday night during a public hearing.

The city would follow in the footsteps of Omaha, Lincoln and Ralston if it successfully pursues the tax on restaurants and drinking establishments. If it passes, the tax could eventually generate up to $700,000, according to the city.

Mayor Doug Kindig has pointed to major projects in the city, including redevelopment on 84th Street and a multimillion-dollar road and sewer project east of 72nd Street, as part of the city’s reasoning for the tax.

Those types of investments can direct millions of tax dollars to the city, but La Vista must spend money upfront on roads, sewers and incentives to create those opportunities, Kindig said.

And in the meantime, the city must find new sources of revenue to provide consistent services and hire more staff as La Vista grows.

“I don’t like raising taxes,” Kindig said during the meeting, “but what I do like to do is to be able to set our city up with a diversified tax base for the next generation.”

Six of the city’s eight council members expressed similar ideas when discussing the proposal: They don’t love the idea of cuffing a tax to La Vista’s business owners but think the new source of revenue is necessary for growth.

La Vista is landlocked, which hinders its ability to increase its property tax base.

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The proposed tax — which applies to items like fast-food meals, gas station pops and drinks from coffee shops — would add 75 cents to the cost of a $50 meal.

Two men, neither of whom identified himself as a restaurant owner, spoke in favor of the tax. One of them said he has lived in the city for 15 years and thinks La Vista has been a good steward of taxpayer money.

Jeff Harwood, owner of Mama’s Pizza at 96th Street and Giles Road, opposed the tax, citing rising property taxes and costs of labor.

“I just think any time there’s a tax increase, it takes away our ability to increase our prices,” he said after the meeting.

Harwood has been through this before. As the owner of the Mama’s Pizza location at 156th and Pacific Streets and a partial owner of the original location on Saddle Creek Road, Harwood has lived with Omaha’s restaurant tax for nearly a decade.

He said he wasn’t strongly opposed to the implementation of Omaha’s tax because of the financial problems the city faced at the time. This time around, he said, he wants more specifics from La Vista about how the funds would be dispersed.

Jim Otto, president of the Nebraska Retail Federation and a lobbyist for the Nebraska Restaurant Association, had a more complex take on the tax.

Speaking on behalf of the association — whose members include representatives of Runza, Upstream, La Casa and Brewsky’s — Otto said the group is neutral to the concept of the tax. Its concern involves transaction fees.

Most credit and debit cards charge restaurants a transaction fee. And restaurant taxes in other cities — including Omaha and Lincoln — have provisions that give 2% of the tax takeaway back to the restaurant to offset those fees, Otto said.

The same council members who voiced support for the tax seemed willing to include a similar clause in La Vista’s tax. Kindig said city staff will research the issue before the tax goes before the council for a second reading Sept. 3.

Council members Kim Thomas, Ron Sheehan, Terrilyn Quick, Deb Hale, Kelly Sell and Jim Frederick all voted in favor of the proposal. A final vote may not occur until Sept. 17, though the council could waive that third reading at the Sept. 3 meeting.

Councilman Mike Crawford, the lone opponent of the proposed tax, kept his comments brief: “I don’t like raising taxes, either, and for that reason, I won’t be voting for this.”

Councilman Alan Ronan was absent.

Omaha Dines: Here are the city's 38 essential restaurants

Syrian Kurds try to rehabilitate captured Islamic State fighters

QAMISHLI, Syria — At a closely guarded prison in this northeastern Syrian town, former Islamic State fighters make papier-mâché models of birds, flowers and trees while serving sentences that typically run two or three years.

Across the border in Iraq, Islamic State detainees are being held in degrading conditions, subjected to torture and often, when brought to trial, given long sentences or the death penalty, according to human rights groups.

The Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States are attempting a different approach. Their goal, Kurdish officials say, is to rehabilitate and reintegrate many of the Islamic State fighters in their custody, in hopes of deterring a revival of the militant movement.

The Syrian Kurds' leftist ideology precludes the death penalty, and their few functioning courts issue light sentences for fighters not found to have committed major crimes. Hundreds more militants have simply been freed in deals with local Arab tribes whose cooperation the Kurds need to maintain.

By acting with leniency, the Kurds hope to break the cycle of revenge that has trapped so much of the region in conflict for decades, said Khaled Barjas Ali, a senior judge in the terrorism courts run by the self-proclaimed Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria.

"If I sentence a man to death, I am spreading hate. We want to give people reasons to trust us," he said. "If you take revenge, people will be radicalized. But with reconciliation we are sure we can finish the problem."

It is an imperfect effort that is inconsistently enforced, inexpertly applied and acutely under-resourced. But it raises a question unanswered by the wider international community despite nearly two decades of war against terrorism: Do harsh punishments work to deter extremism?

"It's the million-dollar question," said Colin Clarke, an expert in counterterrorism and deradicalization with the Soufan Group consultancy. "We still don't have a good understanding of what works and what doesn't work."

The United States and its allies vigorously prosecuted themilitary campaign that resulted in the territorial defeat of the Islamic State inMarch. They have put less effort into managing the aftermath of the war, including what to do with the approximately 90,000 Islamic State fighters and family members who survived the battles, he said.

"As soon as the kinetic fight was over, it's, 'Oh, ISIS is done,' and we walk away," Clarke said, using another name for the Islamic State.

The Syrian Kurds have been left almost alone to accommodate, feed and guard the captives now being held in either prisons or internment camps. Among the detainees are 1,000 foreign fighters and 9,000 of their wives and children from 46 countries, only 14 of which have agreed to repatriate citizens and mostly only children, according to the Kurdish administration.

The Kurds are appealing for international help and are promoting a proposal for a U.N. tribunal to bring to justice the foreign fighters they hold. But the international community has shown little interest in backing the plan, said Letta Tayler of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Unlike Iraq, the Kurdish administration in Syria's northeast is not an internationally recognized sovereign state and is closely affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and Europe. That precludes many forms of direct assistance that might imply recognition, diplomats say.

The Kurds are keen to demonstrate that their judicial system is fair and meets international standards, in the hope of receiving assistance, Tayler said. But trained legal staff are scarce, and the system appears haphazard.

In the past five years, the three terrorism courts established by the Kurds have tried some 1,500 cases, according to Hassan Hassan, an administrator at one of the courts in the city of Qamishli. An additional 4,000 Syrian fighters are awaiting trial — a backlog that will take 13 years to clear at the current pace.

One recent trial held in a small side office at the Qamishli court seemed a makeshift affair. A 19-year-old defendant called Omar sat handcuffed on a chair. Four people squeezed behind a desk, three of them judges, one the prosecutor. He read out the charge: that the accused had fought with the Islamic State.

Omar had no defense lawyer. He said he was 15 when he joined the militants and did so only for the money. After a process that lasted seven minutes, he put his thumbprint on a copy of his statement and was led away. A sentence will be issued later, but convictions in such cases typically draw about two years, Hassan said.

Some, including members of the Arab tribes who allied with the Kurds against the militants, believe the Kurds are being too lenient, according to Hassan Hassan of the Washington-based Center for Global Policy, who is from eastern Syria but is not related to the court official.

"Some people complain it's a process that will backfire," he said, "that you have too many former ISIS fighters who are sitting with their families back home and you don't know if they are just waiting to be reactivated."

A visit to the prison in Qamishli where about 400 convicted fighters are serving their sentences suggests that conditions for at least some are better than those in Iraqi prisons. The torture and mistreatment of Iraqis suspected of involvement in insurgent activities helped fuel the resurgence of the Islamic State after U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, and it appears that conditions have not improved, human rights researchers say.

The Qamishli facility features a visiting hall with glass booths and intercoms, a barber and a dental clinic. The air-conditioned cells have three-tier bunk beds and televisions tuned to Arabic soap operas.

Two dozen prisoners were attending an art class, where they were painting papier-mâché palm trees in a room crammed with models, some of them elaborate reconstructions of towns and villages that were apparently made by prisoners.

"Here we have learned that the ISIS ideology was wrong," said a 36-year old former fighter, in the presence of prison guards.

A prison administration official who asked to be identified by her nom de guerre, Haval (Comrade) Abir, said most of the prisoners joined the Islamic State only for the money.

"It is our philosophy to give them a chance to start a new life," she said.