LINCOLN — Paul Feilmann arrives from Omaha about 7 a.m., setting out a lawn chair and a couple of signs in front of the Governor’s Residence. He usually doesn’t leave until about 4 p.m.
For the past week, Feilmann has conducted a vigil to urge reform of the state’s criminal justice system. He says he won’t leave the governor’s lawn until a blue-ribbon committee is created by Gov. Pete Ricketts to address what Feilmann says is a “crisis” within state prisons and youth rehabilitation centers.
“It’s an emergency. And it never gets better. It just gets worse,” said Feilmann, a former mental health therapist and current prison volunteer.
“Unless something big happens, someone’s going to die,” he added.
The 63-year-old retiree who lives in the Dundee area said he was spurred to action by recent reports of trouble at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, the Douglas County Jail and the state Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Geneva, which are all struggling with staff shortages and high turnover.
Another problem, he said, is overcrowding in state prisons, which hold about 1,900 more inmates than they’re designed to house. That has sparked a federal lawsuit.
“It’s not a problem with how the prisons are managed, there’s just too many bodies in there,” Feilmann said.
“The progress I see at this point is this big,” he said, pinching two fingers nearly together. “But the problem is this big,” he added, opening his arms wide.
The governor’s SUV drove by Feilmann’s vigil site more than once last week, but the governor’s spokesman was noncommittal when asked about Fielmann’s request for a task force.
Taylor Gage, the spokesman, said that the Governor’s Office in July convened a group of stakeholders to review the state’s juvenile justice system, which included discussion of what’s needed at the youth rehabilitation centers.
“We invite Paul Feilmann to review the Department of Corrections’ strategic plan, progress reports, and reentry handbook to learn more about the great work going on in our corrections system every day,” Gage said.
Protests outside the Governor’s Residence are not new, but are usually brief. For instance, an anti-death penalty group has gathered once a week for decades over the noon hour to hold up signs opposing capital punishment. What’s different with Fielmann is that he’s promised to keep up his daily vigil until some action is taken.
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Feilmann, who volunteers with two prison rehabilitation programs, the 7th Step Club and RISE program, has some background in political action — he helped push for passage of a bill this spring in the Nebraska Legislature that, among other things, requires prisons to conduct a review whenever an inmate is held in solitary confinement for more than 90 days.
He’s also a regular attendee at meetings concerning criminal justice issues, including a group in Douglas County seeking alternatives to jailing troubled youths.
During his vigil, Feilmann talks to passersby and livestreams an hourly report on his Facebook page about his concerns. He also posts interviews with those seeking criminal justice reform, including one with an Omaha man, Steven Abraham, who is hoping to set up a program to reform gang members via a work program like the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries.
One day last week, a Douglas County official who works with juveniles stopped by to stay hello, and a former convict parked his delivery truck to chat briefly about ways to reduce prison overcrowding and keep kids out of jail. Feilmann also met later that same day with the director of the Douglas County Jail, and has meetings set up with state legislative officials.
The answer for kids? “Discipline,” said Peirce Hubbard, the former convict.
Feilmann said he chose the lawn of the Governor’s Residence because the governor has the power to create a task force to tackle the multiple issues within the state’s criminal justice system. He said that such a task force would be different from one organized in 2014 as part of a justice reinvestment effort through the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, which led to passage of some criminal sentencing reforms.
A new task force would have broader membership and community involvement, Feilmann said. It needs to include ex-cons and representatives of foundation and nonprofit groups that have demonstrated success in keeping kids out of jail, dealing with juveniles whose fathers are in prison and in helping inmates become productive citizens, he said.
Feilmann said he keeps up his vigil in hopes that more people will become aware of the need to reform the state’s criminal justice system.
“It’s an emergency,” he said.