LINCOLN — After months of threats, the ACLU of Nebraska filed a lawsuit early Wednesday, alleging that “extreme” overcrowding in the state’s prison system has caused “needless suffering and death” of inmates, as well as unsafe conditions for staff.
“For over twenty years, Nebraska state prisons have been overcrowded, under-resourced, and understaffed. The result is a dangerous system in perpetual crisis,” stated the civil rights lawsuit, filed electronically just after midnight to the U.S. District Court.
The lawsuit names the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, its director, Scott Frakes, and the Nebraska Board of Parole among its defendants.
The 87-page suit alleges that inmates, especially those with disabilities and mental health problems, are denied adequate health care and that some inmates spend months and years in solitary confinement, sometimes shackled, particularly harming those with mental illnesses.
Those conditions, the ACLU claims, violate inmates’ constitutional rights to “a community standard” of health care and violate federal statutes governing care for inmates with disabilities.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the lawsuit was filed after the state was given multiple opportunities to address prison problems and after progress appeared to “stall out” during the past session of the Nebraska Legislature.
Overcrowding persists, solitary confinement is used far too often and turnover of security staff and mental health professionals is way too high, she said.
“Good faith efforts are not enough. Other states have struggled with the same issues and they’ve figured out a way,” said Conrad, a former state senator. “It’s all far too little and far too late.”
In April, in response to a lawsuit ultimatum issued then by the ACLU, Frakes defended his agency’s response to overcrowding and other problems, outlining a number of initiatives.
“We are not just sitting back and waiting for things to fix themselves,” he said.
The ACLU’s lawsuit alleges that “extreme overcrowding” is the “primary cause” of the state’s problems behind bars.
As of March, the most recent information posted on the state website, Nebraska’s state prisons, designed to hold 3,275 inmates, instead held 5,228, which is 159.6 percent of capacity.
One result, according to the ACLU, is a suicide rate in state facilities that is 30 percent higher than the national average. Another is that rehabilitation programming cannot be delivered to enough inmates to make them eligible for release on parole, thus keeping inmates in expensive prison cells rather than putting them back in society and in jobs.
Twice in the past two years, riots have broken out at the Tecumseh State Prison, leaving four inmates dead, several staffers injured and millions of dollars in damage. In addition, an inmate was killed by his cellmate in April at the same prison, raising questions about the practice of double-bunking solitary confinement cells designed to hold one inmate.
Serious assaults on prison staff have also escalated in recent weeks, though Corrections has initiated new security steps in response.
ACLU officials said they interviewed dozens of inmates who complained about prison conditions and selected 11 for the lawsuit after medical professionals evaluated their medical records. The 11 cases, officials said, illustrate typical problems of inmates:
» Medical conditions of some inmates worsened because they were misdiagnosed or treatment was delayed, including for X-rays for suspected broken bones, treatment of chest pains and provision of prescribed medications. Deaf and blind inmates were not provided help so they could participate in programs and work toward parole.
» Inmates’ mental health deteriorated after spending days in solitary confinement cells. Some were bound for days in “five-point” restraints, soiling and urinating on themselves.
Some inmates, the lawsuit said, were punished by being fed for several days for every meal with “nutraloaf,” a bland meatloaf that can be eaten without utensils and described in the lawsuit as “so distasteful and inedible” that inmates sometimes stop eating.
State officials have said they are taking steps to alleviate overcrowding and bolster health care and rehabilitation programs. They have also announced plans to reduce the use of solitary confinement and eliminate its use for punishment.
Under state law, the governor can declare an emergency if the inmate population exceeds 140 percent — a level that has existed for the past decade. But both Govs. Pete Ricketts and his predecessor, Dave Heineman, have declined to do that.
Instead, the state worked with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments on sentencing and parole reforms designed to reduce overcrowding, reforms that have yet to result in a significant reduction, state officials have said.
State lawmakers, after months of hearings and debate, also increased spending on rehabilitation programs and allocated $26 million for an expansion of the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln. A new 100-bed modular dormitory will soon open at the same prison, and $75 million was set aside this year to build a prison addition for elderly and mentally ill inmates.
Ricketts has often said that it took a decade for problems at Corrections to accumulate and that it will take years to turn the agency around.
But the ACLU’s suit asks the federal court to intervene to “immediately remedy” the problems. Besides the 11 inmates and the ACLU of Nebraska, the lawsuit was filed by the ACLU National Prison Project, Nebraska Appleseed and the National Association of the Deaf.
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