Corrections boss says reforms are working despite recent incidents

LINCOLN, Neb. - Following a spate of recent disturbances in Nebraska's prison facilities, Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Thursday that there are problems but improvements are being made.

He said that one of those areas - inmate-on-inmate violence - is actually down.

Frakes outlined the overall status of reforms taking shape within the department in the wake of several high-profile incidents - three staff members assaulted by inmates at Tecumseh Wednesday - the death of an inmate from the Tecumseh facility after he was found unresponsive in his cell over the weekend and the March 2 disturbance that ended in the deaths of two inmates.

An earlier uprising at the Tecumseh facility also ended with two deaths as well as extensive property damage. There was also the disturbance and fire at the Lincoln Corrections facility. Three staff members were assaulted.

Frakes called the Wednesday staff assaults at Tecumseh a, "random act of violence by an intoxicated inmate," but he said there is also violence that is more organized.

He said when it comes to organized violence, "we are dealing with a small part of our population," but he said it's a difficult population. He acknowledged gang activity in the state and he said the members of those gangs bring those ties with them when they move from the streets to the prisons.

Frakes said Thursday, "The only right number is zero," when it comes to staff assaults.

He said all of the incidents are under review. "My goal is to be transparent," but he said he is bound by a lot of restrictions. "Most of the inmate information is confidential," he said and, "I have to work within the law."

Frakes said all of the recent incidents are under review and the department is moving ahead with its long-term goals of adjustments and reforms. They have identified a variety of areas that are the focus of their concentrations and progress is being made.

"This takes time," he said while noting that they are trying to overcome a 10 year period of under-funding. "I believe we are seeing results," he said.

Those long-term adjustments include improvements to the physical plants to improvements in technology, staff training, staff pay and overall inmate numbers.

In reference to a threatened lawsuit by the ACLU over prison conditions, Frakes said he believes the department can do its best work when working in tandem with advocacy organizations.

The ACLU released the following the Frakes' press conference on Thursday.

"“Just this week we witnessed more tragic news about more violence resulting in yet another death in our prisons. There are a host of smart evidence based reforms the governor could initiate now under his existing executive authority such as declaring an emergency. There are pending policy reforms in the legislature that Governor Ricketts and the Department could support from sentencing reform to reentry support. These bills are strongly supported by conservative leaders because they ensure public safety and help ease the burden on taxpayers.

“Our legal team is working hard to finalize this complex and critical litigation. We will not share any additional details about our legal strategy or timeline at this juncture. Our next announcement about this case will be when we file suit. In the absence of state leadership our work is more important than ever.

“Extreme overcrowding of prisons, such as Nebraska is now experiencing, causes violence that harms those in state custody as well as correctional officers and staff. This is an emergency that requires the Governor and the Legislature to act. Lives are at stake.

“We respect Director Frakes and are grateful to the hardworking men and women on the front lines of our correctional system for their service. But as the Director said, these problems have been years in the making and we cannot continue to pass the problems down the road and hope for a future solution.”