State leaders in Nebraska must make some difficult choices about prisons now that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed its long-threatened lawsuit alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights.
The state could choose to aggressively defend itself. Nebraska has made changes worth defending, including criminal sentencing reforms, spending more on treatment and building additional prison space.
Even the ACLU acknowledges that Nebraska’s prisons are on a better long-term path today than when Gov. Pete Ricketts and state prisons director Scott Frakes started working with lawmakers on improvements.
But it would be better if Ricketts, Frakes and officials with ACLU Nebraska found some common ground short of going to trial. Both sides would be wiser to avoid letting this preventable legal battle spiral out of control.
The state’s motivation to negotiate is clear: Discussion and skillfully targeted investments in Nebraska’s prisons seem more logical than risking judicial intervention and the unknowns that might entail. The ACLU’s lead lawyer in the Nebraska case participated in the lawsuit that led to a judicial takeover of California’s prison system. That state has been forced to release thousands of inmates, over the objections of corrections officials.
Failure to seek additional reforms for prison crowding and related problems could result in something similar in Nebraska.
Simply pointing to previous reforms might not be enough, given that state sentencing changes are taking longer than expected to reduce the total number of prisoners.
State lawmakers will have to decide whether they want to go further in reducing criminal sentences — sending more inmates to county jails instead of state prisons — and whether counties can afford to appropriately handle the influx. Senators also might consider whether the state should spend the money to boost prison capacity further.
The ACLU told The World-Herald it is willing to settle its differences with the state out of court, saying every day it waits for legal resolution is another day Nebraska inmates must wait for the adequate medical and mental health care guaranteed them by law.
The lawsuit offered 11 specific examples of people it says have suffered in prison because of alleged failures by the state: One inmate had his diabetes under control until going to prison. The lawsuit alleges prison doctors and medication managers handled his disease so poorly that he’s now blind. Another inmate says prison personnel frequently forgot to reorder her schizophrenia drugs, leaving her unmedicated for days or weeks at a time. Another inmate had his broken leg misdiagnosed until it broke again.
Many prisoners allegedly waited weeks or months to see a doctor, mental health provider or substance abuse treatment provider.
Such problems with prison health care are not new. State Ombudsman Marshall Lux has written about them over the years. But crowded prisons often exacerbate questionable care, risking increased spread of disease by housing more inmates in closer quarters, additional use of solitary confinement, which threatens inmate mental health, and increased tensions among inmates.
The lawsuit should spur the state to accelerate the pace of its reforms.
“Good-faith efforts are not enough,” ACLU Nebraska Director Danielle Conrad said. “Other states have struggled with the same issues, and they’ve figured out a way.”
The challenge, however, may come down to money and the state’s commitment. Ricketts and Frakes have already negotiated higher pay for prison guards. The need to pay prison medical and mental health staff more is on their radar, too. The state lists vacancies for clinical psychologists to serve its prisons in Tecumseh and Lincoln, as well as chemical dependency counselors and nurses in Omaha, Lincoln, Tecumseh and York.
State officials shouldn’t acquiesce to every ACLU demand. For instance, lawmakers needn’t give in to pressure to change Nebraska’s mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Not only do they appropriately target only dangerous criminals, but the Council of State Governments also found that Nebraska’s mandatory minimums contributed very little to Nebraska’s prison crowding.
Both sides should seek common ground that would avoid a trial while benefiting the state, its prisoners and public safety.