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Some Nebraska prison inmates will be allowed cellphones, thanks to policy change

Some Nebraska prison inmates will be allowed cellphones, thanks to policy change

LINCOLN — Some Nebraska prison inmates will be allowed to carry cellphones under a new policy designed to help prisoners arrange jobs and adjust to life on the outside.

In the state’s maximum-, medium- and minimum-security prisons, cellphones are still considered illegal contraband, subject to confiscation from inmates who smuggle them in.

But inmates nearing a release from custody, who have graduated to community custody status and are employed outside of prison as part of a work-release program, will be allowed to purchase cellphones that can be used to contact employers or even fill out job applications via the internet.

Phones must be checked in and locked away in lockers upon their return to a community corrections facility, a state prison spokeswoman said Friday, and can only be used in prison under supervision. Also, passwords must be provided to corrections staff so that phones can be checked for inappropriate use.

“Part of getting inmates prepared for release involves giving them greater responsibility and freedom to make choices on their own,” said Laura Strimple, spokeswoman for the Department of Correctional Services. “If someone uses a phone that is contrary to the parameters of the program, then that person will lose that privilege.”

The policy change comes as more prisons, including in Iowa, are allowing inmates involved in work-release programs to have cellphones. It is an about-face from past policies that banned all cellphones from inmates out of fear they would be used to arrange escapes or drug buys, or for harassing crime victims or conducting phone scams.

But advocates say cellphones can be used to combat boredom, via computer games, and to keep in better touch with family members, particularly during the isolation of COVID-19 restrictions. While prisons have landlines and tablet computers available for communicating with the outside, they are often expensive.

Strimple also pointed out that inmates working outside of prison already have access to cellphones, though they cannot legally own one. Allowing inmates to have personal cellphones could help them address work issues, such as contacting an employer if they are running late.

Bob Houston, a former Nebraska State Corrections director, said allowing an inmate to possess a cellphone can serve as a powerful incentive for good behavior, as well as teaching a lesson in responsible behavior before being released from custody.

“I see this as a reasonable transition to becoming a good citizen,” Houston said.

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, who has been involved in prison issues, said the new policy is a good idea.

“It’s a good way to transition them back into society, especially those who have been in for a long time,” McKinney said. “Technology has advanced a lot ... they need to be caught up.”

The cellphone program affects about 800 of the more than 5,300 inmates in state prisons. The program was launched on April 15 but has been suspended since then, Strimple said, because “components of the program” need to be reviewed further before proceeding. She declined to specify what caused the suspension, other than to say it wasn’t security related. It was unclear when the program might be restarted.

“As an agency responsible for public safety, that is the right thing to do,” Strimple said of the review.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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