LINCOLN — Prison staff watched but did not intervene for more than an hour this spring as a solitary confinement inmate roamed the unit hallway at the Tecumseh State Prison, according to a new state report.
During that time, the report said, the inmate passed notes from cell to cell, encouraged vandalism by other inmates, tied bedsheets across the hall, covered the security camera and started a fire.
His escapade ended only when the smoke from the fire got thick enough that he went to the unit entrance to ask for medical help.
Now Doug Koebernick, inspector general of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, is questioning the response to the May 25 incident. He recently released a report on the incident in which he noted that the situation could have turned deadly for staff members and inmates.
“An outside observer finds it difficult to believe that the appropriate response to an inmate roaming around a gallery for a period of time setting fires is to just let him do that,” Koebernick said.
He called for the Corrections Department to review its policies on potentially dangerous situations and figure out whether action could have been taken sooner.
In a letter included with the report, Scott Frakes, the department director, said he accepted that recommendation.
He said staff members have reviewed how they could have responded differently, both to the inmate’s initial actions and when he started the fire.
“I share the concern that every minute counts in an emergency situation,” Frakes said, “and agree that the timely response to these incidents is paramount.”
Frakes also agreed with the recommendation to contact the local fire department and the State Fire Marshal about fires in state prisons.
Prison procedures require such contacts when a fire occurs. But Koebernick said neither was called about the May 25 fire.
And apparently no one contacted the Nebraska State Patrol about what may be a case of criminal arson, he said.
Corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said staff at the Tecumseh prison “did not believe (the incident) rose to the level of external notification.”
Not even the agency’s central office was notified initially about the incident, according to Smith.
“This has been addressed,” she said.
The department, in turn, never issued a press release about the incident, as it has done in a number of other cases. Smith said that because of the delay in alerting the central office, it “no longer made sense to issue a news release.”
In the response letter, Frakes took issue with some of the inspector general’s findings.
In one, Koebernick raised concern about the amount of time it took for prison staff to check on inmates living in the unit after removing the one who started the fire.
His report said staff entered the hallway and started checking on the other inmates at 8:09 p.m. — about 50 minutes after the fire began.
They took the first inmate to a medical area 10 minutes later. At least four and as many as 10 staff members escorted each inmate.
Eventually, eight inmates from the unit received medical attention. None of the inmates are named in the report.
The report does not say whether the smoke exposure caused serious health issues. Some inmates reported suffering trauma from being locked in a cell while there was a fire.
Koebernick said the medical response could be considered “less than responsive or timely.”
But Frakes said the inspector general had no evidence to support that finding. He said medical care was provided in a timely manner.
Frakes also said there was no evidence to support Koebernick’s finding that Tecumseh’s chronic staff shortages slowed response to the incident.
The inspector general said it took time to assemble five staff members, the minimum required to respond to the inmate’s initial actions.
Once the fire got going, the team needed to be increased to eight people because of the low visibility. That meant pulling staff from other areas of the prison, which caused additional delay, Koebernick said.
Frakes pointed to miscommunication among staff as the cause for the delay. The miscommunication involved who was supposed to be part of the response team.
The fire came during a troubled period for Nebraska’s prison system. Recent problems include deadly riots, staff assaults, escapes, overcrowding and high levels of staff turnover.