Nebraska prison watchdog cites inmate, staffing numbers as top concerns in NDCS

His report drops a month after Attorney General Mike Hilgers called the inspector general’s role unconstitutional
Despite a recent opinion from the NE Attorney General calling the state’s corrections and child welfare Inspector General’s unconstitutional, work continues.
Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 6:02 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Despite a recent opinion from the Nebraska Attorney General calling the state’s corrections and child welfare Inspector General’s unconstitutional, work continues.

Doug Koebernick, inspector general for corrections, dropped his annual report Monday, highlighting a number of concerns as the department embarks on a new chapter with a new director, Rob Jeffreys.

Koebernick told 10/11, he’s had good experiences working with Jeffreys so far.

“I found him to be quite open,” Koebernick said. “I think what’s really great about the new director is his desire to get out into the facilities, he has spent so much time out there from when I talked to individuals, either staff or people who are incarcerated.”

The 74-page report also highlighted some areas Koebernick thinks NDCS and the state should work to address, including the ongoing overcrowding emergency. The inmate population was at 5,709 on August 1, 2023. That’s at pre-pandemic levels.

Koebernick said the new prison won’t bring the population down below 125% of design capacity, which is what it would take to get out of the emergency.

“I would estimate that our overcrowding levels will be higher when the new prison is built than they are right now. Just because of our continued growth in population,” Koebernick said.

The current Nebraska State Penitentiary has 1,300 beds, while the new one will have 1,500. When asked whether he thinks the state should build a bigger prison, Koebernick said it depends on how the legislature would like to spend state money.

“I think that it’s my understanding that the new prison will be designed so that they can add on to it in the future,” Koebernick said. “The problem with that probably, if you’re a legislator, is that that’s going to come at a huge price tag, because it’s going to be about $350 million to build the new one and you want to double the capacity, you’re looking at several 100 million dollars more.”

Koebernick said staffing also continues to be a concern, with both turnover and vacancies up this year after significant improvements last year.

Two facilities, the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln and the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution are on staffing emergencies.

“They still have problems getting people out of their cells and on a regular basis and providing opportunities for men to get to programming and recreation and religious things like that,” Koebernick said.

There also continues to be vacancies in behavioral health staffing, the report notes.

“Two thirds of the psychologist positions are vacant right now. Over half or so over the behavioral health practitioner positions are vacant,” Koebernick said.

Koebernick is also concerned that a few studies commissioned by the legislature haven’t yet been released. This includes a study into the state’s inmate classification system that’s more than a year late.

“That was meant to give a better understanding of what the needs are as far as the custody levels within the Department of Corrections, especially when you’re going to build a new prison, like what kind of prison do you need, if we have a lot of needs at the lower custody level, that’s different than if we have a lot of needs at the higher custody level,” Koebernick said.

Another missing study is one on domestic violence programming.

Koebernick’s office also discovered a small number of inmates who have been held in restrictive housing, meaning they only get out of their cells for one hour a day, for more than six months.

One of those is an inmate set to be released without any post-supervision release in December.

“It’s really important for people to not just leave that setting to go out in the community. So one of the reasons we highlighted that in our report was we want to make sure that that that has an emphasis that when people are in that setting, they need to have some sort of transition plan,” Koebernick said.

Koebernick said that concern of inmates released without transitional programming is part of the reason why his role was created in 2015.

“Somebody was put in restrictive housing for a long time, there was no transition for them, they went out and did some bad things,” Koebernick said.

Nikko Jenkins was that inmate. He was released from prison and within a month went on a murder spree. He’s now on death row.

Koebernick said the need for oversight hasn’t gone away, and his office will continue working despite the Attorney General’s opinion. He said Nebraska laws haven’t changed, even though his access to information has.

He said his office no longer has automatic access to certain data, they don’t have the authority to go into prisons and they don’t get notified about prison deaths anymore.

That’s even though deaths are increasing. There have been 19 inmate deaths in 2023 so far. That’s as many as there were in all of 2022. Koebernick said many are elderly inmates who are ill, but they are still looking into the increase.

“Right now it’s a little premature,” Koebernick said. “But it is a little concerning to see that number go up and we’re definitely going to do what we can to take a look at it and get a better understanding in case there are some system issues that that We think needs to be addressed or highlighted.”

Read the full report here: