LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts has postponed a scheduled town hall in Lexington, Nebraska, on Thursday so he can talk with some of the nine corrections officers injured in a disturbance at the Lincoln Correctional Center.

The governor will also meet with Corrections Director Scott Frakes.

All nine of the officers assaulted in the Wednesday night disturbance were treated and released from Lincoln medical facilities, said Dawn-Renee Smith, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

Six staff members were transported by ambulance to the hospital, while three others were taken via state vehicle.

One female staffer required staples to close off a cut to her head, said Tammy Kluver, the public information officer at the prison. Some staffers were exposed to pepper spray that was used to disperse the inmates.

“Short of a serious medical emergency, inmates won’t be leaving their cells today,” she said.

Investigators from the Nebraska State Patrol were on site Thursday to probe the cause of the disturbance. The prison remained on lockdown status Thursday.

Smith said Thursday that the incident started about 6 p.m. Wednesday when one inmate struck a staff member, then other inmates immediately began assaulting other staff members in the area.

The Lincoln Correctional Center was fully staffed at the time of the incident, she said.

Frakes said, “Staff safety is a priority for our team. We are doing everything we can to prevent these events. We are thankful the staff members were released from the hospital and able to go home last night.

“This incident cannot be attributed to crowding or staffing levels. Inmates made the choice to harm staff.”

Warden Fred Britten said the prison’s administration would resume normal operations “as soon as it is appropriate.”

“Violence against NDCS staff members is unacceptable. I am proud of the way staff responded to contain and resolve the situation,” Britten said.

Meanwhile, two key state senators called for a meeting with state prison officials to get a handle on their plan to reduce assaults of corrections staffers.

“How many more people need to get hurt before the administration realizes that this is more urgent than a budget next year or the labor negotiations that start later this year?” asked State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who has several prisons in his district. “The timeline for action needs to be shorter. It needs to be immediate.”

Hastings Sen. Les Seiler, who chairs a prison oversight committee and the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he wants to know what Frakes is doing to “change the program” and reduce recent incidents of prison violence.

“I think we’ve got to have a sit-down soon, and see what the heck the administration has in mind,” Seiler said. “We can’t let this continue to happen with these assaults.”

Wednesday’s disturbance at the Lincoln Correctional Center was the third in the last two weeks that sent officers to the hospital from the facility. In addition, another Lincoln prison, the State Penitentiary, was put on lockdown twice in recent weeks due to disturbances.

Coash said that there seems to be a vicious circle of staffing problems in the state prison system: Because of poor pay, turnover of staff is high; that causes more staff to be inexperienced and more staff to work overtime; inmates know that and test the officers, who aren’t as well equipped to deal with it; the result is more incidents.

“The system as a whole is really struggling.” Coash said. “Incidents like this only make it worse. If I just spent two hours in a hospital, my wife would say you’re resigning tomorrow.”

A special legislative committee probing the problems at corrections had already scheduled a meeting on Wednesday to meet with Frakes about staffing issues. The recent assaults in the prison will likely be a part of that discussion.

9 correctional officers injured in confrontation with inmates at Lincoln Correctional Center

LINCOLN — Violence erupted again Wednesday evening at a state prison, sending nine correctional staff members from the Lincoln Correctional Center to a hospital.

The confrontation flared when several inmates refused to return to their housing units. A special detail in riot gear was eventually deployed to help end the disturbance.

“All inmates are in their cells, the facility is locked down and there is no risk to the public,” said Dawn-Renee Smith, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. “The immediate priority is getting medical care for staff members.”

Six staff members were taken to a hospital by Lincoln rescue personnel and three by private vehicle, she said.

All were expected to be treated and released Wednesday night, Smith said.

Lincoln Fire Department radio transmissions indicated that two of the staff members lost consciousness, including a 50-year-old woman. Both were found in the infirmary in the basement. Another injured employee, a 24-year-old man, had been struck by a homemade weapon, according to radio transmissions.

Some corrections officers suffered from the effects of pepper spray.

Rescue personnel were first called to the prison, on the west edge of Lincoln, about 6:30 p.m.

Access to the prison was blocked off, and a stream of state vehicles arrived, including one driven by Col. Brad Rice, the superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol.

The disturbance marked the third time in 12 days that corrections staff required medical treatment following assaults at the Lincoln Correctional Center, a medium-maximum security facility designed to hold 308 inmates. The facility held an average of 502 inmates during the second quarter of 2016, which is about 70 percent over capacity.

The correctional center was put on lockdown status Wednesday night, meaning that inmates are mostly restricted to the cells, even during meal time.

The Lincoln prison was the site of a daring escape in June in which two prisoners slipped out by hiding in a laundry cart. An investigation into that escape is nearly completed, and some changes in security are underway at the facility, but there was no indication, as of Wednesday night, that the changes contributed to Wednesday’s disturbance.

Mario Peart, who was warden at the time of the escape, retired on July 1 and was replaced by veteran warden Fred Britten, who also oversees the adjacent Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

Mike Marvin, the head of the state employees union that represents corrections officers, said that he had few details about Wednesday’s prison disturbance, but that staffing shortages have contributed to the incidents.

Overtime is frequently required to fill shifts, leading to tired officers and less-than-ideal conditions for security, he said. Inmates get less yard time and fewer privileges with “skeleton” staff, leading to unrest, Marvin said.

“Things have been tense everywhere,” he said of the state’s 10 prisons.

Another facility in Lincoln, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, had been put in lockdown status twice in recent weeks because of disturbances.

Assaults on officers had increased nearly threefold from 2013 to 2015, according to state statistics obtained by The World-Herald in April.

The Department of Corrections has wrestled with multiple problems in recent years, including overcrowded prisons, miscalculation of hundreds of inmate release dates, and high staff turnover and mandatory overtime. That led to the hiring of Scott Frakes, a 30-year veteran of the Washington state prison system in February of 2015. Gov. Pete Ricketts gave Frakes the task of changing the culture of the agency.

Three months after the new director arrived, a riot erupted at the Tecumseh State Prison that resulted in the deaths of two inmates and more than $2 million in damage. It was the worst prison uprising in Nebraska in six decades.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com; 402-444-3106, emerson.clarridge@owh.com

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