LINCOLN — An emergency lockdown coupled with cell searches ended Friday at the state’s largest prison. It began with an emergency order on Wednesday to search for contraband, including the synthetic marijuana product called K2, or spice, after a rash of assaults on staff.

The entire Nebraska State Penitentiary was searched in what State Corrections Director Scott Frakes described as a stepped-up effort to end problems at the prison, which holds about 1,375 inmates, roughly twice its design capacity.

Frakes said the prison will remain on “modified operations” at least through the weekend, which means no visits from family and friends but some “controlled” movements outside of inmates’ cells.

They will have access to showers and day rooms, but there will be no unescorted movement off their housing units, he said.

Frakes said Friday afternoon that he was not ready to reveal what contraband or weapons had been found in the searches.

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In a Friday morning conference call with reporters, Gov. Pete Ricketts expressed support for the lockdown, which was the first of its scale at a Nebraska prison in recent years.

“What we’re always concerned about is keeping inmates and our own staff safe. That’s always going to be the focus,” Ricketts said.

He added that more work needs to be done to address staff shortages at the penitentiary and other Nebraska prisons. Frakes, on Thursday, said that the vigor of cell searches has probably suffered because of the constant overtime required of prison staff.

The lockdown was ordered Wednesday morning after a trio of incidents involving staff assaults over the Labor Day weekend, as well as discovery of inmates high on K2, a hallucinogenic drug that’s cheap, easily accessible and easier to smuggle into a prison than marijuana.

Michele Wilhelm, the penitentiary’s warden, said that inmates have been cooperative during the lockdown, an event that can lead to increased tensions inside a prison.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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