Nebraska State Penitentiary

Nebraska State Penitentiary

Journal Star file photo

An incident at the Nebraska State Penitentiary on Tuesday required tower staff to fire a smoke canister round to disperse a crowd of inmates, according to a prison official.

Information about the 6 p.m. incident originally came from a staff member who contacted the media concerned the public would not hear about its seriousness.

When contacted Wednesday, Dawn-Renee Smith, Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman, described the incident as two separate inmate fights that included two people in each fight. She said five inmates were subsequently restrained and removed from the penitentiary yard.

But others reported more inmates were involved in multiple fights and threats of violence.

No news release was issued because no staff members were seriously injured, Smith said. 

She said that when inmates were returned to their cells, four of them refused to go and had to be restrained. The prison entered a modified lockdown 40 minutes after the incident, and the prison returned to normal operations by breakfast time Wednesday.

While Tuesday’s melee was eventually controlled by staff, it was a frightening ordeal, the employee said.

Nebraska prisons have seen a riot and numerous other violent incidents since May 2015, including multiple prisoner deaths. Increased staff assaults, severe staff shortages and serious overcrowded conditions have been reported.

In August, ACLU of Nebraska filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 11 prisoners, and sought class certification for all current and future inmates. It asked the Department of Correctional Services and the Board of Parole to immediately address crowding and the lack of adequate health care and accommodations for prisoners with disabilities.

Two staffers, who asked not to be named out of concerns for their jobs, told the Journal Star there have been many staff assaults that aren't being reported to the public.

The staffer who voiced the initial concerns gave this version of the incident at the penitentiary:

After one fight started Tuesday evening and those inmates were restrained, other prisoners attacked those inmates and staffers who had responded.  

During the melee, the employee saw staffers in two different areas of the yard on the ground wrestling with inmates, with other fights also having broken out.

Dozens of other inmates were gathered around the area of the fights, the staffer said. 

Several were yelling about taking over a housing unit and encouraging others to join them, the staffer said. A staff member in a main tower fired the smoke canister, which scattered inmates. That allowed staff members in the yard to gain control and round up and restrain inmates.

Eventually, the staffer said, many inmates were in handcuffs or leg restraints, and covered in pepper spray. The employee saw at least several broken windows. And staff found at least four homemade knives.

Administrative staff from the prison and the department's central office showed up to address the incident, the staffer said.

Smith stood by her account of the incident Thursday, saying it was based on written reports and evidence.

Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick said two people had also reported to him there were multiple altercations Tuesday.

He has asked for video and any written reports from the incident and will review them, he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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