TECUMSEH, Neb. — Behind the razor-wire-tipped fences of the state prison here stands an X-shaped building where inmates spend 23 hours a day in 9-by-18-foot concrete cells.
Those in the special management unit, or SMU, typically get out for only an hour a day of exercise, five days a week.
An inmate’s links to the outside world consist of two or three narrow windows that allow in outside light and a slot in a thick steel door through which trays of food and books are passed.
This was home to Nikko Jenkins, one of the most notorious prison inmates in state history.
Inmates call it “the hole,” though the proper prison term is “restrictive housing,” not solitary confinement. State prison officials recently provided The World-Herald with a tour of Tecumseh’s SMU, which at 192 single-occupancy cells is the state’s largest. There, changes are afoot in the wake of Jenkins’ homicidal spree in Omaha, which occurred just days after his release from prison.
It was a rare look inside an almost hidden world that few people get to visit, and where few people want to stay.
“Make sure they show you an IM cell. That’s where they torture you,” shouted an inmate during the recent tour of the SMU.
The inmate, shackled at the wrists and ankles and accompanied by two guards, was referring to an “intensive management” cell, or IM, within the segregation unit. It’s the most restrictive form of solitary confinement, where an inmate doesn’t even get out for exercise or showers — those rooms are adjacent to each IM cell.
The shackles on the inmate, known as “jewelry” in the SMU, are routine when moving inmates to and from meetings or to visits over video hookups. One guard holds a “come-along” chain attached to the inmate’s waist to literally ensure that the inmate comes along. Inmates who are spitters or who bite might also have to wear a protective mask over their mouths.
Because of assaults and disruptive behavior, Jenkins spent his last two years in solitary. While in isolation, Jenkins smeared his bodily fluids across his cell, cut himself in the face and used his blood to write words on the walls.
A few months before his release in July 2013 he was transferred to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, but remained in segregation.
He promised a “massacre” if he was let out, then killed four people in Omaha shortly after being released.
Prison psychiatrists and psychologists differed on whether he was mentally ill and dangerous, or anti-social and making up his claims of being commanded by an Egyptian god to kill.
But the Jenkins case and others like it are sounding alarm bells across the globe about the use of solitary confinement as punishment, particularly when it’s used for more than a few days and for seriously mentally ill inmates.
Study after study indicates that prolonged isolation and lack of social interaction worsens the paranoia and anxiety of mentally ill inmates and can destabilize even those without mental health problems. Rates of suicide and self-mutilation are higher in solitary confinement, and some states report higher rates of repeat crimes for those who spend time in isolation.
The United Nations and Pope Francis have gone as far as calling segregation a form of torture, and groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Association of State Correctional Administrators have called for reducing its use.
“Virtually all state prison systems are wrestling with the issue of restrictive housing. It is a concern,” said Nebraska Corrections Director Mike Kenney.
Mississippi, Colorado and Maine are some of the states that have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Some have banned its use for the seriously mentally ill, or agreed to improve mental health care.
In Nebraska, the Jenkins case has already prompted changes, such as group counseling sessions for mentally ill inmates and shorter stays in isolation. Two legislative committees and another one headed by Gov. Dave Heineman are looking at further reforms.
“Definitely, our radar is up, especially now,” said Brian Gage, who serves as warden at the Tecumseh State Prison.
Solitary confinement raises public safety concerns because more than 95 percent of prison inmates eventually return to society.
Experts say inmates who spend long periods in isolation need some form of re-socialization before being released. Without a transition, the pent-up hostility of prisoners in solitary who lack social interaction can explode into tragedy, said Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Haney is a national authority on long-term segregation.
“Prisoners in solitary confinement are living in a world that could hardly be more different from the one they will be asked to reintegrate back into upon release,” Haney said. “They need transitional programming.”
At Tecumseh’s SMU, Warden Gage, a husky Army veteran with a no-nonsense crew cut, is working not only to reduce the use of solitary confinement but to better prepare inmates for a return to the general prison population and, eventually, to society.
The SMU is designed to protect staff and inmates from prisoners who pose a threat to the safety and security of the prison, by restricting their contact with guards and other inmates.
As of mid-September, Nebraska’s prisons held 719 prisoners in restrictive housing, about 14 percent of all inmates.
Inmates are sent there for a variety of reasons. About half are in protective custody because they have been threatened.
Another large group is in administrative confinement, which includes gang leaders sent to isolation to disrupt prison gang activity. “Immediate segregation” is used after an assault or other disciplinary violation, while the exact punishment is worked out. Disciplinary segregation is punishment for assaults or other disruptive behavior. Intensive management is reserved for the most disruptive inmates.
Segregation is one of six disciplinary measures that can be imposed for misbehavior. Prison officials say it’s often more effective than taking away good time because it’s an immediate sanction and because inmates with long sentences don’t see spending a few more days in prison as much of a punishment.
Nikko Jenkins was housed in an intensive management cell during his time at Tecumseh. The cells are the highest security level at the prison.
When recreation time comes, a corrections officer calls over an intercom and “pops” open a back door remotely. It leads to a 9-by-15-foot enclosed pen that some call a “dog run.”
When it’s time for a shower, the cell’s front door opens to a small anteroom with a stainless steel shower stall, about the size you’d find in an RV camper.
The cell itself is as spartan as a 1960s high school locker room: bare concrete walls and a battleship gray steel shelf that holds a thin mattress. There’s also a stainless steel sink with a toilet sticking out at the bottom.
Regular SMU cells are slightly different. They don’t have built-in showers and recreation areas. Inmates in those cells are allowed, one at a time, to walk out their doorway and down a hallway to a shower room. The same happens for trips to a caged recreation area.
Gage refers to it as the daily “ballet”: the well-rehearsed routine of getting each inmate fed, provided with an hour of recreation and a 15-minute shower, and phone calls.
It’s an expensive ballet for taxpayers, because of the need for more staff — up to three times as many staffers as at less-secure prison units.
Each SMU cell has a narrow vertical window in the door, about as wide as a fist.
During the tour of one wing, many of the cells are dark — either empty or with inmates napping before lunch. In one cell, a well-muscled and shirtless inmate quietly paces.
“Yeeoww,” yells another inmate.
In another wing, there’s more activity. A guard, as required by policy, announces there’s a “female” on the unit as part of the tour group.
That brings most of the inmates to their doors, to peer through the narrow windows.
“Who is that?” one asks. In one cell, an inmate is on the floor, appearing to exercise. Another inmate at the glass has tattoos covering his neck and chest. Through another window, an inmate can be seen exposing his genitals.
Gage said he has seen his share of bizarre behavior in the SMU. One inmate kicked at his door for 24 hours straight; another stood in the middle of his cell and urinated in a circle.
Jenkins exhibited similar bizarre behavior and issued multiple threats to kill if released.
State senators investigating his case seemed convinced the conduct was extreme enough to be a clear warning sign, but those who have worked in the SMU say it isn’t all that unusual.
“Some of the means of entertainment you probably would not appreciate,” said Mike Steadman, a former caseworker in the SMU who now works for the state employees union, the Nebraska Association of Public Employees.
Mark Weilage, a prison psychologist, told state senators in September that acts such as self-mutilation are not uncommon, but that some SMU inmates “coach” others on how to “act crazy” to get better conditions.
It’s very difficult to decipher the behavior, Weilage said. Many admit, he said, that it was done out of boredom or anger.
Steadman, Gage and others who have worked in the SMU unit contest the Hollywood depiction of solitary confinement as a dark, windowless hole where inmates are locked up and the key is thrown away.
The SMU cells at Tecumseh have the same amount of space as a normal prison cell, and inmates can talk to other inmates across the hall or through the wire-mesh recreation enclosures. By climbing on the cell’s toilet, an inmate can talk through the ventilation system.
Inmates in the SMU get an hour per week in the law library, and the best-behaved inmates — one per wing — can get a prison cleaning job that pays $1.21 per day.
There is some natural light, and bright lights are not on 24 hours a day, though a 5-watt light remains on at night so guards can see inmates during routine prisoner counts.
“We need to see living and breathing flesh,” Gage said.
After good behavior for the first week in the SMU, an inmate can earn the right to listen to the radio or purchase a TV to watch.
Some inmates, Steadman said, want to be in the SMU because they don’t have to share a cell or deal with inmates in the yard.
As opposed to years ago, Gage said, SMU inmates are given clear instructions on how they can return to less-restrictive cells.
One program, started in 2008, allows inmates to gradually earn privileges through good behavior and keeping their cells clean. Some of the perks are extra visits, extra yard time and extra activities, such as artwork or participation in a fantasy football league.
“Little things in prison become big,” Gage said of the incentives.
A second program was launched in 2012 with the help of the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Criminal Justice. It is based on the prison transformation undergone by civil rights leader Malcolm
X and focuses on making inmates take responsibility for their misbehavior and set positive goals.
“The ultimate goal is to change behavior,” said Jessica Houseman, a public information officer at the prison.
More changes were made recently.
In February, the Tecumseh SMU began a pilot project to provide group mental-health counseling to as many as six inmates at a time. The counseling programs have expanded to the segregation units at two state prisons in Lincoln.
Group sessions are less expensive than individual counseling and more useful, officials said, because inmates can share experiences and hold each other accountable.
The room is outfitted with metal clasps bolted to the floor. Each inmate is seated with his shackles attached to the floor. It’s a necessary security measure in a world in which an erratic inmate could head-butt a nearby inmate, guard or counselor. Inmates in such groups can be gang rivals, bearing old grudges.
The room may also be used in the future for GED programs, said Megan Cruickshank, a unit manager at the Tecumseh SMU. Offering counseling via video is another possibility.
Also new is a small transition unit at Tecumseh where attempts are made to re-socialize inmates as they prepare to return to the general population or before their release from prison.
“We’re trying to promote as much programming as we can for these individuals who need it the most,” said Cruickshank, who believes that it’s working.
She said she has been surprised that some inmates with histories of bad behavior have turned that around and are in the general population.
Last week Gage made another change, creating a separate 20-bed wing in the SMU for inmates with mental health problems. The program, based on one in Connecticut, provides new programs and allows inmates more time outside their cells — at least 10 hours a week.
Over the past 18 months the efforts have cut the number of inmates in administrative confinement in half, from 124 to 62. The number of prisoners in the most restrictive confinement, intensive management, has dropped from 28 to six.
Gage said he also has increased training for SMU guards and begun assessing an inmate’s status in isolation earlier, after 45 days instead of 90.
Gage said that when he was warden at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women at York, he could see inmates’ mood darken after 30 days in restrictive housing. But running an SMU is a balancing act that involves preserving the safety of staff and inmates, working on behavioral and mental health matters, and housing inmates in a less-restrictive environment.
“For me, a good day is a boring day,” Gage said of the job.
Marshall Lux, the state ombudsman, said he’s impressed by what Gage is trying at Tecumseh, but it’s not nearly enough.
“It’s a step in the right direction. But it’s not a big enough step,” Lux said.
His office raised several concerns about solitary confinement and its impact on Jenkins in a report issued four months after the Omaha slayings.
The report said that Jenkins — despite multiple requests for mental health treatment and threats that he would kill if released — received only cursory mental health checks while in the SMU and no rehabilitation programming before being released. “Clear signs” that Jenkins was dangerous in prison and likely to become violent when released were ignored, the report stated.
Steadman, the former guard, said that in his interactions with Jenkins he found the inmate could “turn it on or off.”
“Most of the people I know who are mentally ill can’t do that,” he said.
Lux said the state needs a separate facility that specializes in treating the seriously mentally ill. Trying such treatment in a normal prison setting isn’t as effective, he said.
This spring, the State Legislature passed a bill to fund a study on converting a now-empty building at the old Hastings Regional Center into a 200-bed mental health facility. Last month a prison consultant recommended building a 358-bed facility in Lincoln to house the Department of Correctional Services’ existing mental health unit, now at the Lincoln Correctional Center, in a “more therapeutic environment.”
About 30 percent of all state prison inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and the percentage is higher in solitary confinement.
“We’ve got to do some serious, deep thinking about our handling of the mentally ill,” Lux said. “We have to have some answer for them other than just putting them in solitary confinement and just forgetting about them.”
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