LINCOLN — Some speakers told a federal panel Thursday that the shortage of mental health care in Nebraska prisons is severe enough to violate prisoners’ human and civil rights.

But Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes said he thinks the prison system meets or exceeds the “community standard of care” for mental health, the level required by state law.

“We’ve made great strides,” he said. “We’re continuing to work and improve our processes.”

Frakes was among several people invited to testify at a daylong hearing before the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The day also included time for public testimony.

The commission is looking into civil rights concerns raised over the treatment of Nebraska inmates with mental health problems.

Several of those testifying, including civil rights and disability rights advocates, reported that state inmates often have trouble getting mental health services, especially timely and appropriate services, despite improvements launched by state officials.

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“While we do see reform efforts being built into the system, we also believe there to be crucial roadblocks,” said Jerrall Moreland, deputy state ombudsman for institutions.

He and others laid the blame largely on overcrowding and persistent staff shortages.

The problems can result in more time behind bars if inmates cannot get into the treatment programs required to be paroled. Lack of services during and after prison can make people more likely to wind up back in the criminal justice system after they are released.

Inadequate treatment for the mentally ill is among the allegations raised by the ACLU of Nebraska in a federal civil rights lawsuit it filed against the state two years ago.

About 20% of the state’s prison inmates have serious mental illness, according to a 2016 estimate, and well over half deal with some kind of behavioral, mental health or substance abuse problem.

Dr. Harbans Deol, medical director for the state prison system, said national statistics suggest that the proportion of prisoners with serious mental illnesses could be anywhere from 18% to 33%. He said one-third of Iowa’s prisoners have serious mental illnesses. Nebraska has not been able to track that number.

He and Frakes listed a number of steps that have been taken or are in the works to improve care for those inmates. Among them:

About 95% of new prisoners now get a clinical mental health assessment within their first 90 days. A peer mentoring program has been set up for inmates with serious mental disorders. Telemedicine, using secure video hookups, is being used to stretch the availability of psychiatrists. Inmates are being released with 30 days’ worth of medications and prescriptions for 60 more days. Five beds have been set aside for use by inmates whose mental health is deteriorating rapidly.

But others detailed continuing concerns, such as: Nebraska makes too much use of restrictive housing, which replaced solitary confinement; the initial assessment is ineffective and can be significantly delayed; inmate requests for care may be denied by custody staff with no mental health training, and requests for care often get no response or a delayed response. Reentry planning and coordination with community resources is often lacking for inmates being released.

The Nebraska committee will accept written testimony until July 15. Testimony can be sent to The collected testimony will be sent to the federal commission’s Chicago office, which will issue findings and recommendations.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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