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Death of Tecumseh inmate raises questions about why he was bunked with murderer in cell built for 1

Death of Tecumseh inmate raises questions about why he was bunked with murderer in cell built for 1

LINCOLN — At a Thanksgiving dinner in 2014 for those living at Omaha’s homeless shelters, Terry Berry stood out.

His eyesight was so poor he had to lift his plate to his face to see his food.

Quiet at first, Berry (who had graduated that year from a high school in Humboldt, Nebraska) eventually talked excitedly about old girlfriends. He said little about why he was living at the Siena-Francis House.

One of the coordinators of the charity dinner said she arranged to get Berry, then 19, an eye examination and, ultimately, eyeglasses.

He was very talkative, recalled Lori Hefeli-Schaaf, the social justice manager at Omaha’s First Unitarian Church, and he would borrow her phone to call a favorite grandfather.

“He was a sweet young man,” she said. “He just grabbed a place in my heart.”

Recently, though, she learned to her horror that a teenager she remembered as childlike and naive had died after a brutal attack inside a prison cell.

Berry’s cellmate, Patrick Schroeder, who is serving life in prison for the slaying of a Pawnee City farmer in 2006, has been charged with first-degree murder and use of a weapon — a prison towel — to commit a felony.

Berry was the fifth inmate killed inside the Tecumseh State Prison in the past two years, and his slaying has raised questions, from family, friends and state lawmakers, about practices at the state’s highest-security prison.

Why were two inmates placed in a special management unit cell that was designed for one?

Why was an inmate like Berry, who had a good chance of being paroled in April, housed in the same cell as a convicted murderer who was serving life in prison?

Was double-bunking a solitary confinement cell a consequence of the state’s chronically overcrowded prisons, which now hold about 1,900 more inmates than they were designed to hold?

Berry was 22 and about to complete a three- to four-year sentence for cashing a $3,900 stolen check, purportedly for three other men, and kneeing a deputy at the Platte County Jail.

Two days after he was attacked on April 15 he was scheduled to meet with the State Parole Board, and there was a good chance he would have won his release. By contrast, his 39-year-old cellmate was likely never going to leave prison.

Solitary confinement, or the “special management unit,” is where inmates are sent when they break prison rules, or are dangerous or disruptive, or both. As a rule they are not allowed to mingle with other inmates, and their direct contact with corrections officers is limited, to avoid assaults.

Nationally, double-bunking such cells is seen as a risky practice, though several states and county jails do it, mostly to deal with overcrowding and slim budgets.

In Nebraska, double-bunking of SMU cells is used at Tecumseh as well as three other state prisons, in Omaha and Lincoln.

Such restrictive housing or special management units are for the most disruptive and dangerous inmates, who are at risk for additional disruption, according to Gene Atherton, a Colorado prison consultant. “It makes it more dangerous and difficult if they have a cellmate,” he said.

Atherton, who has testified in court on cases of murders involving double-bunking of SMUs, said he would never double-bunk cells holding the most dangerous and unstable inmates. But other prisoners, even if they’ve been sent to solitary for misbehavior, can be placed together under the right circumstances, he said.

Because there are no national standards on inmate pairing, the cellmate decisions often come down to a gut reaction by a unit manager, Atherton said.

Ironically, he said, first-degree murderers can be appropriate roommates. They are sometimes the best-behaved inmates in a prison, who made one traumatic mistake in life that they won’t repeat, Atherton said.

But, he added, picking cellmates who can get along in a “way small” cell is an imperfect science.

“Occasionally, information that’s important about the pairing of inmates escapes the system and is only considered in the aftermath,” Atherton said.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes has declined to say whether prison overcrowding was the reason Berry and Schroeder were placed in a cell designed for just one inmate.

At a recent briefing with reporters following Berry’s death and the March 2 deaths of two other inmates at Tecumseh, Frakes said that confidentiality statutes and the criminal investigation of Berry’s death prevented him from commenting in detail about the slaying.

“There are cases I know where it would be helpful to you and probably helpful to me if I could simply answer all of your questions,” he said. “But the statutes are clear ...”

A spokeswoman for corrections, Dawn-Renee Smith, said state laws barred the department from revealing why Berry was sent to restrictive housing or why he was placed with a convicted killer.

But Smith said that beginning two years ago, 100 of the roughly 200 SMU cells at Tecumseh were double-bunked. Only about 10 of those cells now hold two inmates, she said.

Smith said that inmates are screened for risks of committing or being a victim of sexual assault under the national Prison Rape Elimination Act. They are also evaluated based on their gang affiliation and on prior prison and criminal history before being placed together. Inmates are also simply asked if they can get along, Frakes told reporters.

Said Smith: “Double-bunking in restrictive housing is done in systems around the country. It is a more efficient use of space and it lessens the isolation when another person is in the cell.”

Sometimes, Frakes said, it takes several moves by an inmate before finding a compatible cellmate.

A staffer at Tecumseh, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, and a prison inmate who once served time with Berry at the prison both said Berry was a talkative inmate who could be annoying.

Jose Rodriguez, who is now serving time at the Lincoln Correctional Center, said Berry would sit with him at lunch because no other inmates would allow it.

“My impression was that he was young and not prisonwise,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. “You have to have a certain fortitude and mentality to survive prison.”

Rodriguez said that overcrowding means there are fewer options if you have an incompatible cellmate. He added that if you are unpopular with your unit supervisor, requests for a new cellmate can be ignored.

State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a key senator on prison matters, said he had also heard that Berry wasn’t the “easiest person to be around.” But that, obviously, does not justify a slaying, he said.

And, Krist asked, wouldn’t prison officials know Berry’s personality, and not place him in the same cell with a dangerous cellmate?

“We need to get these incidents, accidents, chaos and riots — whatever you want to call them — under control,” the senator said. “Someone should be accountable.”

In light of the recent deaths and disturbances, Krist has called for a reopening of the special legislative investigative committee that probed the woes of the state prison system in 2014-16. And the inspector general for corrections, Doug Koebernick, is already investigating the circumstances surrounding Berry’s death.

A look at Berry’s life, and interviews with people who knew him before and after he landed in prison, reveal a life of struggles, the loss of loved ones and, finally, homelessness.

Some say the tragedies he faced helped define him.

His mother died in 2004, when he would have been about 9. Three years later he was made a ward of the state while living in Scottsbluff. Court records indicate stays at a youth rehabilitation ranch near Kearney and at Epworth Village in York, where he was examined by a psychotherapist.

By 2009 his father’s parental rights were terminated. That same year Berry was put on probation by a juvenile court judge for assault.

When it came time to attend high school, he moved to the small farming village of Steinauer in southeast Nebraska, living in a house with his grandparents near the town’s prominent Catholic church. He attended Humboldt-Table Rock-Steinauer High.

Townspeople described him as an extremely talkative kid with a strong desire to belong, but as someone who could be easily influenced by others.

If you were working in your yard, Berry might suddenly appear, volunteering to help.

“He always wanted to belong to something,” said Erma Gyhra, a neighbor in Steinauer who would give Berry work when he showed up. “I think he wanted a father figure and a mother figure. His grandparents tried.”

Berry also had to deal with the death of an older brother, Justin Kanniard, who killed himself during a police chase near Humbolt in July 2012. Three months later, Berry’s favorite grandmother, Betty James, died at age 65.

Just after Berry graduated in 2014, on May 30, he was cited for assault after his grandfather called local deputies to report that Berry was “on a rampage, tearing up the house.”

After that, it appears, Berry struck out on his own.

He was arrested in November 2014 for disturbing the peace at the People’s City Mission, the main homeless shelter in Lincoln.

In August 2015 he was charged with trespassing in downtown Lincoln. Later that month he was arrested in Columbus after cashing a $3,900 check stolen from a Columbus auto dealer. He told police he didn’t know the check was stolen, and gave the money to three males who provided him the check. Berry had $100 in his pockets.

When he was arrested, Berry listed the Siena-Francis House in Omaha as his home.

He had also lived at the Open Door Mission in Omaha, according to Candace Gregory, the shelter’s president and CEO.

She said she could not speak specifically about Berry, but people there knew him.

“Our hearts are broken,” she said. “Hopefully something will change so this doesn’t happen to the next person.”

Hefeli-Schaaf said she had remained in contact with Berry for about two months after that Thanksgiving meeting. Then she was told he had moved on to Lincoln.

Hefeli-Schaaf said she cried when she learned his life had ended violently in prison.

“He was a sweet young man who ended up in the wrong place,” she said., 402-473-9584

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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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