TECUMSEH, Neb. — Two dead.
Two units of a state prison taken over. Cells ransacked and mattresses set ablaze.
State officials were seeking answers Monday after the state’s worst prison riot in recent memory, with one state senator calling for another investigation by the Legislature into problems in the state corrections system.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who participated in last year’s probe of mistaken inmate release dates, said the same group needs to look into the riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution and the role understaffing may have played.
“Without getting the full debriefing, I’m convinced that it was a part of what we saw,” Mello said. “We’ve been hearing about understaffing at the facility for years.”
Officials with the state employees union said Tecumseh has been plagued by high turnover rates and problems retaining experienced corrections officers — experience that might have prevented the escalation of a large gathering of inmates into a full-fledged riot.
“You have new people dealing with the hardest inmates in the state, and you have a constantly revolving door. That’s a recipe for disaster,” said Mike Steadman of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, who previously worked 13 years in corrections.
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, who took the job in February, said that he didn’t think the facility was understaffed but that it would be among the issues he would explore.
On Monday, the 960-bed Tecumseh state prison remained on lockdown status.
Officials said 76 additional staff members, along with state troopers and officers with local law enforcement agencies, were called in to help quell the disturbance, which began about 2:30 p.m. Sunday and wasn’t under control until about 1 a.m. Monday.
The Nebraska State Patrol is investigating the deaths of two inmates found after officials regained full control of the prison:
» Donald Peacock, 46, who was serving 40 to 50 years from Dodge County for first-degree sexual assault on a child and visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct. He began his sentence March 12, 2014.
» Shon Collins, 46, who was serving 66 to 80 years from Box Butte County for first-degree sexual assault of a child and visual depiction of sexually explicit content. His sentence began May 17, 2010.
Autopsies were being conducted to determine the cause of their deaths.
Two corrections workers, Cpl. Joseph Hatzenbuehler and caseworker Brandon Guern, were injured during the initial stages of the riot. Both were treated at a local hospital and released, and later returned to work.
Four other inmates were injured: one by a gunshot from a guard in a tower, another by a rubber bullet fired by corrections staff and two by other inmates.
Several staff members had to be rescued from the housing units, Frakes said, including a female recreation worker who barricaded herself in an office at the prison gym until help arrived.
Gov. Pete Ricketts called a press conference for this morning to further discuss the situation. He said Monday that he had been assured that prison staff at Tecumseh were safe and that the facility was secure.
“The department is now focused on ensuring the continued safety of the facility staff and well-being of the inmates,” he said.
The Tecumseh prison is the state’s newest and most secure. The medium/maximum security facility opened in 2001. It includes Nebraska’s death row and the state’s largest solitary confinement unit, but neither unit was reportedly involved in the riot.
The riot began after a guard tried to break up a gathering of about 40 inmates outside one of the housing units. Frakes, who was at Tecumseh Sunday night, said at a press conference Monday that he didn’t know why the inmates were gathering or what they were talking about. He acknowledged one of the inmates told a media outlet they were trying to bring a list of grievances to officials, but said he could not confirm if that was the case.
Some prisoners, Frakes said, had been transferred to Tecumseh following a disturbance Saturday at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
“There is no indication that’s been uncovered at this point to suggest any connection between what happened at (the state pen) and this event,” he said.
Between 100 and 200 inmates may have been involved in the riot eventually as prisoners took control of two housing units on the north side of the prison campus.
Frakes, a former prison warden, said it seemed to take a long time to regain control of the facility.
“I’m very happy that no staff were injured in retaking the facility and restoring order,” Frakes said.
It wasn’t until about 12:30 a.m. Monday that Tecumseh volunteer firefighters were escorted into the prison to extinguish the fires set by inmates. Fire Chief Jim Seckman said fire crews returned about 8 a.m. Monday to pour water on hot spots that reignited.
Most residents of Tecumseh, a farm town of 1,700 about 60 miles south of Omaha, said they were shaken by the riot at the largest employer in town but grateful that no employees were seriously hurt.
“It’s part of the occupational hazards you deal with at this type of facility,” Mayor Bill Montz said. “They’re not choir boys.”
Johnson County Attorney Julie Smith said she was very impressed at how corrections officials worked to regain control at the prison.
“They were very organized,” Smith said.
Smith said the riot was the most widespread violence she was aware of at the prison. In 2007, a Tecumseh inmate, Reko Mitchell, was killed in a fight with another inmate.
Frakes said the department will conduct a critical incident review, which will include input from prison experts outside Nebraska. It will seek to identify what led to the riot and assess the department’s management of the incident, he said. The conclusions will be made public.
The riot came as the State Legislature prepares for second-round debate Tuesday on proposals that would increase oversight of the Corrections Department and provide alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, in order to reduce prison overcrowding.
The state’s prison system, as of April 30, was at nearly 160 percent of its design capacity, holding about 2,000 more inmates than intended, prompting threats of lawsuits.
Tecumseh held 1,008 inmates, or 105 percent of its capacity, on April 30. It was the least overcrowded of the state’s nine adult prisons.
Manpower, though, has always been a problem at Tecumseh, because a smaller labor pool is available in the rural area.
As a result, the turnover rate for corrections officers is the highest in the state system — 23 percent as of September 2014. Overtime costs there have about doubled in the past two years.
Steadman and Mike Marvin, the executive director of NAPE, questioned the department’s calculations and said they think turnover could be 40 percent or higher.
The high turnover rates, they said, lead to officers being required to work double shifts.
Steadman said that in recent weeks, he has been told that mandatory overtime has been required up to three times a week for guards working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.
He said it doesn’t matter how much you compliment corrections officers for a good job, if they have to miss a family birthday party or vacation because of mandatory overtime, they end up quitting for better pay and better working conditions at county jails.
“We don’t have enough staff down there to do what they need to do,” Marvin said.
Steadman said experienced officers can make a big difference in quelling a prison disturbance.
Mello, who heads the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said he will ask that the riot be investigated by the Legislature’s special investigative committee on corrections. The committee needs to explore what prompted the melee, the cost of repairs and temporary housing, and whether staffing and lack of programming were factors, he said.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, another member of the special committee, said he would like to hear more from the Corrections Department first.
“I think there’s a lot of things at play here,” he said.
Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said he also needs to know more before he draws conclusions.
For a year, the ACLU of Nebraska has been threatening to sue the state unless actions are taken to address overcrowding in the prison system.
Danielle Conrad, the group’s Nebraska director, said Monday that “a culture of deliberate indifference” has allowed conditions to reach the boiling point in the state’s prisons.
“The riots this weekend are an unfortunate but expected result of a system in crisis,” Conrad said.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com