LINCOLN — Nebraska’s prison system houses an “alarming number” of inmates in solitary confinement, according to a national think tank.

The Vera Institute of Justice, based in New York City, said the state uses solitary confinement at more than twice the national rate and nearly half of all inmates spend at least one day in “the hole.”

But, in a report released Thursday, the institute praised recently launched reforms and offered several recommendations for doing more to reduce the use of solitary.

“It is Vera’s hope that these recommendations will provide helpful guidance for (the Department of Correctional Services) to successfully build upon the promising steps it has already taken,” the report said.

The report follows a yearlong study of how and when Nebraska prisons use what is called “restrictive housing.”

Department Director Scott Frakes sought the institute’s help after working with them in his previous position in the state of Washington.

He said that work led to significant changes in Washington and he expects it will help Nebraska develop alternatives to restrictive housing.

“The best reform of restrictive housing is reducing the need for restrictive housing by improving the quality of life within prisons and reducing idleness, which is a priority for this agency,” Frakes said.

Doug Koebernick, Nebraska’s inspector general of corrections, said the report reinforced previous recommendations for change, such as addressing staff shortages, increasing programming and improving mental health care.

“I think it gives the department a lot of ideas,” he said. “Now we’ll see what they do with it.”

The use of solitary confinement, particularly its long-term use, has been a concern in Nebraska in the wake of the Nikko Jenkins case. Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate, killed four people in Omaha shortly after his 2013 release from prison, where he had spent years in segregation.

The Vera Institute report noted that his case led to public and legislative scrutiny of the prison system and to efforts at reform.

Among the more recent changes was a 2015 law aimed at limiting the use of solitary confinement.

It was followed by new agency regulations that eliminated the use of restrictive housing as a disciplinary sanction and required that restrictive housing be used only when all other options have been exhausted. The regulations took effect in July.

Frakes, at a legislative hearing last month, said the number of inmates in solitary confinement has not changed since July, but only because of a string of prison assaults and disturbances that have sent more inmates to segregation.

As of Oct. 12, there were 324 inmates confined in restrictive housing, many for assaults but also many (42 percent) as a precaution because prison officials perceive they are a threat to staff or other inmates.

The Vera Institute study looked at the use of various types of restrictive housing during the two-year period ending June 30, 2015, before the recent reforms.

The different types of restrictive housing varied in their purpose, but all involved living in isolated cells with little out-of-cell time or access to social interaction, recreation or constructive activities.

Among the report’s findings:

» The daily population in any type of restrictive housing averaged 13.9 percent of the prison population, more than twice the estimated national average of 5 percent to 6 percent.

» African-American, Latino and Native American inmates were disproportionately likely to be in restrictive housing. Men were more likely than women and younger men more likely than older ones to be in such housing.

» Inmates averaged 44-day stays in disciplinary segregation, but 311 days in protective custody, a type of restrictive housing used to protect inmates from the general population.

» Low-level rule violations accounted for 91 percent of all sanctions that led to disciplinary confinement. The most common sanction was for disobeying an order.

» Rates of hospital or nursing home admissions were significantly higher for inmates living in restrictive housing compared to other inmates. Studies show that solitary confinement has harmful effects on physical health, as well as mental health.

The new report made recommendations in several areas specific to restrictive housing. One called for staff to get training, support and alternative tools to manage inmates without disciplinary segregation as a sanction.

Another suggested policies to bar vulnerable groups including youth, pregnant women and people with developmental disabilities or severe mental illnesses from restrictive housing.

Others called for creation of a program to help inmates transition out of segregation into the general prison population, expansion of mental health care services and steps to minimize the harmful isolation of inmates in restrictive housing.

On a broader level, the report called for Nebraska’s prison system to look for ways to address staff vacancies, turnover and burnout and to expand programs and activities for all inmates.

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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