LINCOLN — State corrections officials said Friday that they’ve taken steps to guard against a repeat of the rampage of Nikko Jenkins.
Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate who served most of his sentence in solitary confinement, killed four people in Omaha within days of being released from prison in 2013.
The horrific spree prompted the Legislature to conduct a special investigation of the state prison system. That probe was later expanded to include other problems within the agency, including a scandal involving the mistaken calculation of release dates for hundreds of prisoners.
Eleven months ago, the special investigative committee’s report called Jenkins’ mental health treatment behind bars “wholly inadequate” and concluded that prolonged confinement in solitary had worsened his mental state.
It called the episode “a total failure of leadership and a textbook example of the administration of state government at its worst.”
On Friday, officials with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services assured state lawmakers that they are making progress in avoiding a similar case in the future.
Among the steps:
» Creation of a new mental health treatment ward of 34 beds at the Lincoln Correctional Center to deal with the state’s most violent and severely mentally ill inmates. More treatment beds are being added to provide transitional care for inmates whose conditions are moderate and improve.
» Beefing up “discharge review teams” to “put a microscope” on the rehabilitation being provided to mentally troubled and ill inmates and ensuring they have a plan, and programming, before being released.
» Filling vacancies for two psychologists at the Tecumseh State Prison, where Jenkins had been imprisoned.
» Significantly reducing the number of inmates released from solitary confinement directly onto the streets, as was the case with Jenkins. In the past three months, there has been one such release in Nebraska prisons compared to about six a month a year ago, said State Corrections Director Scott Frakes.
Frakes, who was hired in February to right the troubled agency, pledged to continue working toward eliminating long-term solitary confinement, which he said doesn’t work to change behavior.
The state obtained a two-year grant earlier this year from a national think tank, the Vera Institute of Justice, to study how to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Nebraska. And last month, a solitary confinement review committee set up by the Legislature held its first meeting.
Legislators on the panel appeared to be mostly appreciative of the steps that have been taken, a stark contrast to Thursday when Frakes was harshly criticized for the release of a strategic plan that they said lacked details and ignored suggestions by senators to revamp former prison facilities in Hastings and Air Park in Lincoln.
State Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings said he realizes that Frakes took on a tough job, one he compared to “standing under a waterfall.”
“We’re making some progress,” Seiler said. “It’s slow. I’m not completely happy.”
Senators on Friday, as they listened to updates on developing better mental health treatment for inmates, again complained about a lack of details from state administrators.
“We’re getting a bit put off,” said Omaha Sen. Bob Krist. He said the department needs to make some “tactical” changes now to address its issues.
“A document with no numbers is hard to call a plan,” said Omaha Sen. Heath Mello of the seven-page strategic plan.
When Frakes arrived on Friday afternoon, he began by apologizing to the committee for a couple of misstatements he made on Thursday.
“I understand that you want answers now. I really do,” Frakes added.
He also promised to bring more data and details in December, as suggested by Mello, when he meets with the committee to discuss the strategic plan.
Frakes said he believes Nebraska classifies too many prisoners as “maximum security,” which requires more expensive supervision.
He repeated on Friday that he needs more time to update the state’s security-risk classification system. Once that’s done, by next summer, he’ll have a better idea of the programming and construction needs of the prison system.
“I don’t want to make bad decisions,” Frakes told the committee.
He said he has had sleepless nights since taking the job, which has included hiring new people to direct prison programming and mental health programs.
“Even if you’re frustrated with me, I hope you’re excited about the people we’ve brought in,” Frakes said. “We’re headed in the right direction with the resources we have.”
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