J.L. Schmidt (copy)

J.L. Schmidt, Nebraska Press Association

A much-anticipated and long-overdue lawsuit against the Nebraska prison system has been filed in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union. The simple facts -- the prisons:

• are overcrowded;

• lack adequate programming;

• can’t or won’t pay proper attention to inmates’ physical needs;

• are short-staffed.

It’s time for the administration and the Legislature to stop the posing and posturing, forget the clichés about public safety and face the reality that the system is broken. The lawsuit calls it a humanitarian crisis. Prisons are at 160 percent of capacity, with inmates double-bunked in space designed for one and some sleeping on cots or mattresses in hallways and common areas.

Further, the suit claims, many are deprived of much-needed mental health care. Remember the case of Nikko Jenkins? He asked for psychiatric help, didn’t get it and was released, only to commit four murders a few days later. Others are deprived of necessary health care and basic accommodations for deafness, blindness or other disabilities.

The ACLU reports inmates suffering and dying from treatable medical conditions, and  injuries and deaths resulting from the violence that erupts within the prisons. There have been five inmates killed in three incidents at the Tecumseh facility in the last two years. Four of those murders remain unsolved.

The ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad, a former state senator, calls the lawsuit historic in that it lays down a marker in Nebraska state history.

‘'No more," she said. "This is where the trajectory changes and we come together and take a fresh look at policy reform."

That’s the key: reform. Reform means to make changes in something in order to improve it.

It’s hard to deny that the prisons have reached a state of chaos that daily endangers the health of prisoners and staff. Assaults on staff seem to be a weekly, sometimes daily, occurrence.

The time has come to put away the band-aids and perform the surgery.

In response to word that the suit has been filed, Gov. Pete Ricketts predictably started to beat the “public safety” horse. He said all three branches of government have “invested millions of taxpayer dollars to protect public safety and expand state prisons.”

I’m sorry, we don’t need to “expand” prisons, we need to fix what’s broken.

Ricketts continued by saying that “this litigation from the ACLU threatens public safety by seeking the early release of dangerous criminals and could endanger our corrections officers by further limiting the tools they have to manage the inmate population.”

I may have missed it, but I don’t think anybody is calling for the release of “dangerous criminals.”

It seems to be a front-loading problem, putting people behind bars who would be better off in treatment programs. Alternatives exist. As for limiting the management tools, did I mention the five dead inmates with the current set of management tools? It might be time to look for new tools.

Whose public safety is it? Does that include the incarcerated? It’s an obligation of the system that put them in prison to protect them, educate them and transform them so they can be productive citizens when they are released.

Lest you think I’m another one of those bleeding-heart liberals, let me tell you why I take this prison issue so seriously. I have family members who have served time; I have friends who have been guards. I have spent more time visiting Nebraska prisons than most reporters. I have heard the stories from the mouths of people I trust. I am not complaining. I simply want you to know how the system works and how it has failed my friends and family members.

One family member was told by a prison physician’s assistant to ice an injury suffered in a prison soccer game. Some months later, when he was released and went to a “real” doctor, he was diagnosed with a torn ACL. This doctor said anyone with training should have recognized the situation.

Another family member served time but would have been far better off in a treatment facility. He had trouble getting much-needed medication when he was transferred among four facilities. After one transfer, he couldn’t even get his prison-issued clothing for several days because of paperwork delays – read that as staff incompetence, staff absences and lack of backup. He finally had to appeal to the warden in order to get the clothing he needed.

Perhaps these cases seem insignificant compared to the horrors outlined by the ACLU, but they were very real and concerning to my family. Multiply those feelings by the thousands, many of whom can’t or won’t speak up. It’s a serious problem.

So please, Gov. Ricketts, Attorney General Peterson and Nebraska lawmakers, get real about prison reform and get it right this time. Prisoners are not animals. They are people who have made mistakes. Let’s start treating them like the humans and family members that they are.

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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