It has been a little more than a year since a riot at the Tecumseh prison left two inmates dead and two injured and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the facility.
The incident was seen, by some, as a major test for new Corrections Director Scott Frakes and his boss, Governor Pete Ricketts. It came on the heels of an on-going investigation of the corrections system by a special legislative committee amid promises by Ricketts and Frakes that they were going to change the culture of the system.
Some inmate groups have said they simply wanted their grievances – about everything from programming to solitary confinement – heard. Reactions vary as to whether or not that has happened. But Frakes said a number of things have changed for the better.
He said the approval by the Legislature for money for a 160-bed expansion of the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln was a big step. Frakes said the beds will provide housing for a specific population of inmates who need to be in the less restrictive environment of community corrections but separated from some who may have caused them harm in the past. Likewise, the Protective Management Unit has been created at Tecumseh. Frakes calls that the department’s first example of “mission specific housing.”
Following through on a promise made after the Tecumseh riot, Frakes said the department now has inmate councils meeting at every facility. That has improved communication between staff and inmates. He said improvements to the inmate grievance process will be addressed in the next budget. In addition, Employee Positive Impact Councils have been launched at
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each facility to provide a forum for employees to share ideas that will shape the agency and provide feedback.
One of the major concerns about the Tecumseh riot was the issue of employee safety. Inmate assaults on staff have increased in the past year, but Frakes hopes that implementation of the Internal Critical Incident Review process will identify response improvements to maintain staff safety. He said the addition of security equipment to include a stronger concentration of pepper spray, restraint chairs and electronic restraint devices at the facilities should also help. Identifying the activity contributing to assaults and disruptive behavior is the task for a dedicated intelligence team which will also rely on the expanded use of cognitive-behavioral interventions to specifically address criminal thinking.
Frakes said that the department is making efforts to reduce vacancies, overtime hours and turnover rates for all staff. Complaints that staff was stressed by mandatory overtime at Tecumseh were plentiful in the immediate post-riot investigation. Lawmakers, employee groups and others have called for more training, better wages and working conditions to avoid future problems. Frakes said steps in that direction are already paying dividends to the department.
Before the 2015 riot, several inmates said they were trying to get the administration to pay attention to a two-page statement of grievances about arbitrary solitary confinement, perks for some inmates and not others, disrespect by some staff, inexperienced staff and increasingly crowded conditions.
They also objected to being denied access to jobs, training and self-betterment clubs that would help prepare them for a return to life outside prison. Prison sentences are for punishment, but many feel that prisons have become warehouses. Without positive programs and opportunity for inmates
self-betterment, many of those incarcerated will return to the streets no better than when they came in.
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Frakes addressed the legislative investigative committee late last year, but some committee members say they still aren’t clear on exactly what he is doing to change the culture and fix the issues that have plagued the system for a number of years. The committee has said it definitely wants to see behavioral and mental health treatment and programs.
The head of the Legislature’s Executive Board, Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, said the make or break for him is going to be a safe environment both for the prison staff and the people who are behind bars.
"My own gut tells me that if the temperature goes up in the summertime and the prison population stays consistent, we're going to have some issues,” Krist said. “But I hope I'm wrong."
Hats off to Frakes and his staff for making some changes. Let’s hope that he has a big enough box of band-aids to hold out until sweeping reform can be made.