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Midlands Voices: State prison system must better address COVID threat

Midlands Voices: State prison system must better address COVID threat

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The Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

On March 20, 2020, the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report titled “Civil Rights, Prisons and Mental Health.” The report was issued following a series of panel discussions on prison conditions facing individuals with mental health concerns in the state. The report examines the extent to which such individuals are afforded equal access to medical services, such as adequate mental health and psychiatric care, and reasonable protections from injury or the risk of injury while incarcerated.

The scope and objectives of the report explicitly sought to reinforce the constitutionally protected rights of the incarcerated given that “while some progress has been made in staffing and decreasing the number of inmates in restrictive housing, the Nebraska prison system remains in a state of crisis: overcrowded, with a disproportionate population of people of color and insufficient programming and job training to allow prisoners to transition out of the system” (Lincoln Journal Star, Oct. 22, 2020).

On July 27, 2020, the committee released an addendum to this report, addressing the impact of the present COVID-19 pandemic on various areas of concern raised in the initial report. In this addendum the committee addresses the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the mental health and well-being of incarcerated individuals, particularly given previous concerns regarding resource limitations. The addendum concludes, “the necessity for resources for the COVID-19 response cannot be ‘generated’ by siphoning any additional resources away from the already challenged effort to shore up mental health care in the NDCS (Nebraska Department of Corrections Services) system.”

The devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight the importance of these considerations given the disproportionate impact to the incarcerated in Nebraska, and deepens the call for needed attention to, and the care and well-being of, this vulnerable population. This is especially important given that with the new cases of being reported in Nebraska prisons, more than 150 state prison workers have now tested positive for the virus. The agency says on its website that at least 231 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Oct. 1. One inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary has died.

More than anything thing else, the NDCS seems to be lurching through the COVID-19 pandemic with equal parts of denial and a reluctance to act forcefully to address the totality of these issues, and now finds itself incapable of realistically and decisively responding to the challenges that they present, that being the protection, safety and mental well-being of its workers, the incarcerated and the communities that it serves.

The Nebraska Advisory Committee is a federally appointed, bipartisan body charged with playing a vital role in advancing civil rights through objective and comprehensive investigation, research and analysis on issues of fundamental concern to the federal government and the public. In this matter, the committee has weighed in on the issue of the conditions (especially those related to the mental health and well-being of the incarcerated) in the Nebraska prison system, and we find it wanting.

The report and its addendum should serve as a clarion call to all Nebraska public officials, legislators and citizens to step up and act with alacrity to reconcile these gross deficiencies. Let us take this moment, under the veil of the pandemic, to reimagine this dimension of our public charge and responsibility to the social contract, to assiduously address what is now a chronic ailment allowed to fester for too long.

We cannot simply wait for the pandemic to run its course until a vaccine is readily available. The Nebraska Department of Corrections must act, rather than dither, and it must do so in a manner that is intentional and unambiguous, it if is to respond to this call to action.

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Ph.D., serves as the chair of the Nebraska Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, a federally appointed body. He is a university administrator with the University of Nebraska Omaha. These comments are his alone and do not reflect the positions or policy of the University of Nebraska.

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