Hope, defiance greet ACLU prison lawsuit

ACLU Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad discusses lawsuit in the Capitol Rotunda (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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August 16, 2017 - 3:45pm

State officials’ reactions ranged from hopeful to defiant, after the ACLU filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court over conditions and overcrowding in Nebraska prisons.

At a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda, ACLU Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad outlined the basis for the lawsuit. “Nebraska state prisons are in a state of chaos that endangers the health, safety and lives of prisoners and frontline staff alike,” Conrad declared.

The 90-page filing alleges a shortage of medical, mental health and dental care, along with an overuse of solitary confinement. It describes incidents including a prisoner who repeatedly complained of chest pains suffering a heart attack and dying alone in his cell, and an inmate who told officials she had been raped before entering prison, but whose pregnancy was not recognized and who was not taken to a hospital until an hour before she gave birth.

Conrad said even convicted criminals deserve humane treatment. “While we do not condone their crimes or criminal transgressions by any individual, no one checks their rights – their basic constitutional rights – at the prison door,” she said.

Former prisoner Dominque Morgan said the treatment of inmates is inconsistent with Nebraskans’ values. “I feel like we pride ourselves on how humane we are as people. When I travel this country and I look at people and I smile, I recognize that you can’t do that all over this world. But we do that in Omaha, in Nebraska. We smile, we look at people in the eye. We recognize you as a human being, as someone that we care about,” Morgan said. “I don’t know why we don’t do that to these folks who are behind these walls.”

David Fathi, the lead lawyer in the case from ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Nebraska’s prisons are not typical. “As someone who has worked on these issues all around the country for more than 20 years, I want to assure you that these conditions are not normal. Multiple major riots with major deaths are not normal. The extreme crowding in Nebraska prisons is not normal,” Fathi said.

Four prisoners have died in two riots at the state prison in Tecumseh in the last two years, and there have been numerous assaults on staff as well as an escape from another prison. Fathi cited figures showing Nebraska’s prisons are the nation’s fourth most crowded, after Alabama’s, Illinois’ and Hawaii’s.

The lawsuit suggests a number of remedies, including better services, sentencing reduction, less use of solitary confinement, and early release of prisoners. Fathi said the ACLU could enter into a settlement with the state, or the state could fight the lawsuit at a cost of millions of dollars and ultimately face a day of reckoning.

In a recorded statement issued in reaction to the lawsuit, Gov. Pete Ricketts hardly seemed disposed to settle. “This litigation from the ACLU threatens public safety by seeking the early release of dangerous criminals, and could endanger our corrections officers by limiting the tools they have to manage the inmate population,” Ricketts said.

Sen. Patty Pansing-Brooks, who served on a special legislative committee overseeing the prisons, said substantive change is needed, and could cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. “Otherwise we’re in some deep trouble as a state. We know that we’ve got monetary issues, but again, these are not throwaway people. Ninety percent of them are going to come back into our communities. And we have got to deal with this issue and make sure our communities are safe,” Pansing Brooks said.

And Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has been dealing with prison issues during 46 years in the Legislature, predicted change will come. “It’s in the hands of the court, and I do look for some action that will be corrective,” Chambers said.

The Department of Correctional Services declined to comment beyond the governor’s statement. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office said it will review the lawsuit before responding.   





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