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Omaha protesters paint harsh picture of jail; officials say they did their best in a bad situation

Omaha protesters paint harsh picture of jail; officials say they did their best in a bad situation


Amanda Humes and Ben Schacht have carefully considered which local protests to attend among several over the past two months.

In early June, they attended a vigil for Zachary Bear Heels, who died in 2017 after he was punched and shocked with a Taser by Omaha police officers. Two days later, they marched down Dodge Street to Memorial Park — a week after James Scurlock was killed.

Saturday’s gathering, which started at Midtown Crossing and was held to stand in solidarity with Portland and demand justice for Scurlock, was near the married couple’s residence. They trusted the organizers and took part in the peaceful protest.

But they didn’t return home until early Monday morning, after little sleep and an overnight stay at the Douglas County Jail.

What they learned while there is that the arresting and booking process is not a smooth one.

“There was this feeling of hopelessness. It didn’t feel like there was a person in there who was interested in listening or helping,” said Humes, 33. “This feeling that you’re up against this system of processing … you don’t know where you are in that process or how long it will take.”

The 120 protesters who were arrested by Omaha police officers Saturday night near 28th and Farnam Streets bogged down the jail’s booking process, despite the fact that Douglas County correctional officers stayed past their shifts and additional officers were called in to handle the influx. Scheduled routine maintenance to the jail’s computer system only added to the delays in getting protesters processed and released.

Many protesters took to social media or told their family and friends about conditions inside the jail. Some of the allegations included that air conditioning in the cells was turned off, that they weren’t given food and that the cells were overcrowded. Some protesters contended that the system glitches were deliberate.

Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers said the allegations aren’t accurate.

“It was just a perfect storm of events,” he said Monday while showing a World-Herald reporter the areas where the protesters were kept. “I don’t want to discount people’s experiences. It’s frustrating to know that we were doing the best that we could with the resources that we had and the space that we had, and to be demonized like that feels unfair.”

Myers said the jail isn’t equipped to handle so many people at one time. Officials had set up a third booking window after the large protests of late May and early June. The change allowed jail workers to book as many as 40 people in one hour, but the Saturday night system reboot jammed up the process.

After people are booked, they are patted down and screened for metal or cellphones. They also must turn in any property, other than clothing, visit the medical office and get a booking photo taken, among other steps. Myers said with 100-plus people, all of that takes time.

The protesters filled the jail’s 66-chair holding area, two large cells, eight small cells and a courtroom waiting room and small gym that officers turned into sleeping quarters with plastic cots.

The holding area has 10 phones, which are free to use, two private toilets and drinking fountains. Sometimes on Sunday, Myers said, the large holding cell doors were opened to allow people to freely walk around. Other times, officers switched out groups to let them use the phones and get water. Protesters dispute that phone access and water were readily available.

Riley Wilson, who served as a legal observer for a Scottsbluff attorney, said that at one point, 43 men were in one of the large cells, standing-room only. Wilson and others criticized the crowding based on federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend keeping people 6 feet apart to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

“Once we were transferred over to the correctional facility, the biggest, scariest thing for me,” Schacht said, “was being in a pandemic and being crammed together. Masks can only protect you so much.”

Myers said if there’s a problem with an inmate, jail workers move the people from the waiting room to the cells for safety, and that’s what happened. Most of the time, he said, the large cells held about 20 to 25 people.

“You can’t social distance here,” he said. “We did the best that we could.”

All arrestees are given orange, laundered masks, and most of the protesters wore their own masks, Humes said. Correctional officers are also required to wear masks.

Many protesters said the capacity of the large cells was 14. A small sign above those cells — numbers 1 and 6 — say “ICE CAPACITY — 14.” Myers said that if the jail is holding arrestees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, then only 14 people can be in that cell at once. But these protesters were not arrested on ICE-related charges, so those standards didn’t apply.

“ICE has a lot of standards which exceed normal operating standards,” Myers said.

At least one transgender person was arrested and placed into a small holding cell alone. Myers said officials usually allow transgender inmates to be with the gender they identify as, and a committee discusses placement so that the inmate and others are safe, but the committee doesn’t meet on weekends.

The protesters were arrested on suspicion of a combination of charges, but mostly failure to disperse and obstructing passage. One person was arrested on suspicion of negligent driving, six with obstructing officers, four with resisting arrest and 11 with unlawful assembly, said Omaha Police Lt. Sherie Thomas, a police spokeswoman.

“The protesters started walking in the street against the direction of traffic, then there were announcements made advising the crowd that they were unlawfully assembling before arrests were made,” Thomas said in an email.

Omaha Police Capt. Mark Matuza had said Saturday that the protest “leaned toward the potential of getting violent.” When a World-Herald reporter requested more information about that statement, Thomas said “some intelligence was gathered” and declined to give further details.

Wilson, the legal observer, said he did not observe any violence by protesters. He said he did see officers push someone off their bicycle and shoot pepper balls. As they arrested protesters from about 9:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m., they ordered people to get on the ground and then put zip ties on their hands.

Protesters sat on a bridge along Farnam Street for a few hours before they were taken to the Douglas County Jail, where they waited again.

“It was incredibly slow, and it was really painful,” Humes said. “Both my wrists were swollen and bruised from having to lay there like that.”

Once inside the jail, Humes said, she was put into a holding cell with other women.

“They all yelled, ‘You’re 46!’ meaning I was the 46th person to go into this room,” she said.

Humes said some people were waiting to get their medication, and others coached a woman through an anxiety attack.

At some point, the toilet in the women’s cell clogged or overflowed. Myers said that he had not heard about that but that maintenance staff is on hand at all times to fix problems as they arise.

Around noon Sunday, Myers said, he authorized his staff to use a paper process to book people and allow them to post their bail because the computers still weren’t working. About 37 people were released during the day Sunday, and 69 people were released between 3 p.m. and midnight, he said. A few protesters had warrants from other counties and weren’t allowed to be released, he said.

Myers said he was at the jail Sunday, overseeing the holding area. He said he spoke to a gathering of friends and family outside the jail to address their concerns.

Myers said he is proud of the way his correctional officers handled the influx of people.

Humes said she was able to pay her $500 bail but couldn’t leave the jail until about 10 p.m. Sunday. She waited for her husband for a couple of hours but then went home. Her husband was released about 1 a.m. Monday.

Schacht, Humes and Wilson said they heard officers say that the jail process, charges and financial burden might stymie the arrestees’ future efforts to raise their voices in protest. But they said the situation only bolstered many protesters’ attitudes.

“When you hear that, it sure makes you think, this was a very deliberate attempt to send a message,” Wilson said. “If the desired result was to have (protesters) being dissuaded from acting, all they did was intensify their beliefs.”

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