ACLU sues Nebraska on prison overcrowding, conditions

Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (Photo courtesy Nebraska Departement of Correctional Services)
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August 16, 2017 - 12:30am

The Nebraska prison system, plagued by years of overcrowding, staff turnover, unrest and violence, has been hit by a lawsuit filed by representatives of the inmates confined in its largest facilities.  The lawsuit charges conditions at both men’s and women’s prisons amount to unconstitutional punishment.

The lawsuit filed early Wednesday morning against the Department of Correctional Services calls the state prisons in Nebraska “a dangerous system in perpetual crisis.”  Prisoners asking for a hearing claim they are “consistently deprived” of adequate medical attention, including mental health care. Some prisoners cite the use of solitary confinement, claiming it has aggravated their pre-existing mental illnesses. Disabled prisoners, including the blind and deaf, claim they are denied basic accommodations for their disabilities.

Amy Miller, lead attorney on the case, has eleven inmates listed in the lawsuit.

They provide a snapshot of what's happening on medical care, dental care, mental health care, and overuse of solitary confinement,” Miller said.

The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court of Nebraska to expand the case into a class action suit that would cover all inmates imprisoned in state facilities. It requests the court require the state to develop a plan addressing each of the major concerns.

Simply put, we want the judge to order the state of Nebraska to run a prison system in a way that comports with the Constitution. All of these things need to be ordered by a federal judge, because we have not seen any movement from the executive branch to deliver it to the prisoners who are currently in their cells,” Miller said.

Danielle Conrad, the executive director of the ACLU’s Nebraska office, says the use of solitary confinement (or “restrictive housing” as it is called in Nebraska) is of particular concern. Conrad says this becomes a matter for the federal courts when treatment of inmates violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

“The Eight Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is very clear: even for folks who have run afoul of our criminal justice system, the government doesn't have a right to torture people. That's exactly what's happening in Nebraska prisons today,” Conrad said.

One inmate included in the lawsuit is 42-year-old Jason Galle, in prison for theft and assault on a police officer. He was shot in the leg during his arrest seven years ago, but still has bone fragments in his leg which he claims cause severe pain. He says his cane was determined to be unnecessary and was taken away. The lawsuit says the untreated leg was rebroken and he now cannot stand unassisted.

“The difficulty that we're seeing in Nebraska is people are waiting weeks or months for basic care that is just not able to be delivered to them fast enough,” Miller said. “Possibly not from a lack of will, but a lack of people power that the prisons are so overcrowded, they can't transport the individual out, and they don't have enough staff inside to provide that care. Solitary confinement remains one of those issues that America is having a conversation about right now.”

Because of the early morning filing, it was not possible to get a response from the Department of Corrections, but prospect of a lawsuit demanding corrections reform has been on the radar of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration for months.

In April Corrections director Scott Frakes responded to the ACLU’s complaints in a lengthy letter stating much progress had been made, including in the use of solitary confinement, “showing measurable positive results.”

Frakes added the state has reduced overcrowding, and plans to have the prison population below 140 percent of recommended capacity by 2020.

A public announcement of the lawsuit will made later this morning.



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