J.L. Schmidt (copy)

J.L. Schmidt, Nebraska Press Association

Criminal charges have been filed in the death of an inmate at the Tecumseh prison. That marks the first such action in five slayings at the southeast Nebraska facility in two years.

While it represents a benchmark for the troubled Nebraska Department of Corrections system, it also represents a tragedy of overcrowding that forced two inmates into the same cell who should never have been paired. One was a lifer charged with murder, the other a check forger who was days short of a parole hearing and within months of being released. The murderer was charged with yet another murder for allegedly strangling the check-forger.

Explanations from the department were incomplete. The results are pending investigation. Sure. Just like the investigation into the deaths of two inmates on March 2 and two more inmates on Mother’s Day 2015. How do you suppose the families of the five dead inmates are coping?

No, I don’t envy the Department for having to get information from people who are programmed not to snitch. But I do blame the Department for fostering an atmosphere of deplorable living conditions that lead inmates to “riot” – the Department prefers to call them disturbances – to make themselves heard.

I do blame the Governor and the Attorney General and the Department for failing to address overcrowding issues that led to the housing of a convicted murderer with a check-forger. The same overcrowding issue that led to an April incident at the Diagnostic and Evaluation facility in Lincoln where there are nearly three times as many inmates as the facility was built to handle.

A fire erupted in a housing unit after an inmate assaulted a staff member, a department spokeswoman said. In a letter received by the Lincoln Journal-Star, a number of inmates wrote that words were exchanged with a staff member who joined two other officers in the glassed-in bubble (turnkey) where the three pointed at the inmates and joked and laughed. One allegedly “flipped the bird” at inmates and the inmate-set fire ensued.

The Department said that Nebraska State Patrol troopers and Department of Correctional Services emergency teams quelled the disturbance at the prison about two hours after it began. The inmates wrote that they were locked in their cells with smoke pouring in and water from the sprinkler system accumulating under-foot. The emergency doors, which would have allowed them to go to the yard, away from the danger, were kept locked.

Following the incident, the Department reported that the staff had been accounted for and were reported to be safe. The staff member who was assaulted did not appear to be seriously injured. That’s good news for their families, but what about the inmates’ families? Do you suppose they were concerned? Their loved ones (the state calls them inmates or felons or incarcerated people) are at the mercy of the state.

In a recent news release announcing his veto of a voting rights bill (LB75), Governor Pete Ricketts said “Nebraskans are kind-hearted and do not wish to permanently punish convicted felons. The distinction, however, between the restoration of rights versus privileges must be noted. While the Legislature may restore certain privileges, such as driving privileges, to convicted felons, the Legislature may not circumvent the Nebraska Constitution to automatically restore a voting right in state law.”

The measure would immediately restore the voting rights of felons on their release. Proponents say it is an important element to helping them re-establish their role in society. Remember, they are humans too. They are sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. Consider them among “the least of these” referred to by Jesus in Matthew 25: 40.

“The King will reply, ‘truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “

Ricketts rightfully said that the issue requires an amendment to the Nebraska Constitution. Here’s hoping that the proponents will come back with a proposed constitutional amendment next year to allow voters to decide. It shouldn’t be a big deal. The right to vote is referred to more than any other in the U.S. Constitution (five times).

But, given Nebraska’s experience with the death penalty: repeal passed by lawmakers; vetoed by the Governor; reinstated by voters in a campaign largely funded by the Governor; it’s not clear if restoration of voting rights would prevail. Besides, Ricketts said, “while the rehabilitation of criminals is an important goal of the criminal justice system, the immediate restoration of voting rights is not the answer.”

Treating incarcerated people like humans should be a goal of the criminal justice system. Let’s reduce overcrowding by actively supporting alternate courts and sentencing. Let’s ensure the safety of those we’re institutionalizing with the same fervor as we do those who work there.

J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.

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