"Coordinated" 2015 riot blamed on existing conditions at Tecumseh prison

November 29, 2018 - 6:55pm

The 2015 riot at the prison in Tecumseh, Nebraska may have been at least in part coordinated by jailhouse gangs and designed to “overwhelm” the under-staffed institution. Conditions before the uprising “primed the institution for rebellion.”

Scott Frakes (left) and Governor Ricketts. (Photo by NET News.)


Three years after the riot, the Department of Correctional Services released a second report analyzing the 2015 prison riot. CLICK HERE

The first Tecumseh riot report publicly released by the Department of Correctional Services. CLICK HERE.

The Nebraska State Ombudsman's Office prepared a report on behalf of the Legislature. CLICK HERE


That’s one of the conclusions in a consultant’s report never released publicly by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
The existence of the report came to light during testimony in a lawsuit in which a former inmate sued the state of Nebraska for damages, claiming he suffered post-traumatic stress and medical issues as a result of the Mother’s Day riot.
After the smoke of the prison fires cleared in 2015, two inmates had been murdered, two staff members assaulted and others were terrorized for hours. Damage to the facility itself cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair.
Jessica Forch, an assistant attorney general defending the state, told the court she became aware of the report a few days earlier when Director Scott Frakes supplied her with a copy.
She told the court Frakes informed her he had never released it to the public and “never even told anybody about this report.”
Frakes released an assessment of the riot to the public a month after the riot. The “Critical Incident Review” offered a long list of recommendations, most of which corrections claims to have addressed. The lengthy report, prepared by Tomas Fithian with the Washington State Department of Corrections, provided very little discussion of the root causes leading to the day of violence.
A second review, costing $20,000 according to payments recorded by the Nebraska state treasurer, was delivered to Frakes two months later.
The report, “Riot at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution: Causes, Course, and Change,” was co-authored by Bert Useem, Ph.D., an expert on prison disturbances from Purdue University, and Dan Pacholke, at the time a staff member with the Washington State corrections system with whom Frakes had worked previously.
That report takes issue with the impression left by the Fithian report that the crisis occurred “as a matter of chance” meaning the riot unfolded “when and where it did because inmates ‘decided’ to riot at a particular moment.”
Useem and Pacholke saw it differently, attributing the riot’s causes to “pre-riot conditions.”
“A conjuncture of several conditions primed the institution for rebellion,” the report states. “The prison was under stress, inmates were unsettled, the ‘barometric pressure’ was high and rising” resulting in stress that “permitted small acts of resistance to expand rapidly.”
The report states the riot was more coordinated than previously acknowledged by corrections officials.  Prison gangs apparently set aside rivalries to become “somewhat unified” at the time to challenge the prison administration and “overwhelm the staff” with a “coordinated multi-gang strategy.”
After the riot investigators discovered a staff “hit list” written on the walls. Graffiti gang signatures, known as tagging, indicated that list was the product of more than one gang.
Observations made by corrections officers monitoring activity during the riot noted a division of labor as it unfolded. The gang known as Bloods were in charge of the prison yard while the Hispanic gang Sureno controlled the interior living quarters in the housing unit overrun by inmates.
The report claims 47 percent of the inmate population belongs to one of several gangs organized at Tecumseh. Officially, they are called “security threat groups.”
The study cited other factors contributing to the tensions, including some noted in the publicly released document.
Useem and Pacholke determined overcrowding contributed to tensions. The inmate count that day was 1,024 in a facility designed for 960. (According to the NDCS website the current average daily population is 1,028)
Inmate grievances, publicized at the time, primarily involved recent rule changes designed to reward good behavior. Many felt the system was unfair to certain categories of inmates.
Because the facility was understaffed that day those on duty were “overwhelmed” once the incident got out of hand. High turnover among employees meant there was “a high concentration of relatively new, inexperienced staff” which “limited the facility’s ability to respond quickly.”
Incidents outside the walls of the prison also increased tensions, according to the report. News of racially charged incidents around the country was a point of discussion among prisoners. Among them was the infamous Ferguson, Missouri shooting involving a white police officer and a young black man.
One day before, a series of brawls inside the Nebraska Penitentiary in Lincoln put that facility on lock-down. Word of those fights apparently made their way to Tecumseh, 50 miles away.
Both facilities were already on edge before the riot.
It is not known why Frakes kept the report out of the public domain. Members of the state legislature were not given a copy, and in public hearings, corrections officials only made reference to findings in the Fithian report. No alternative conclusions were presented to the policymakers.
Without additional comment, NDCS Chief of Staff Laura Strimple only acknowledged the agency had provided a copy to attorney Joy Shiffermiller once the report came to light in her client’s trial. (A mistrial was declared in that case Wednesday, the result of a conflict of interest involving the presiding judge.)
The spokesperson for Attorney General Doug Peterson provided a near identical answer, but did not respond to questions about whether the office had obtained a copy prior to the damages trial, whether Frake’s failure to provide the report to attorneys in this and other cases was problematic, or if the office had been in contact with Frakes to discuss the matter.
Thursday morning Governor Ricketts told NET News he was not familiar with circumstances around the appearance of the report in court.
There was no response to requests from NET News for comment later in the day about the substance of the report, whether Frakes had provided the governor with a copy at the time it was released, or whether withholding the material from the legislative branch was appropriate.



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