Review of 2017 prison disturbance reveals heavy gang influence, recommended additional inmate discipline

Listen to this story: 

February 18, 2019 - 6:45am

In the weeks before the 2017 prison uprising resulting in the murder of two inmates at Nebraska’s Tecumseh Correctional Institution federal prison experts determined the prison was “’on edge’ with a significant number of violent, gang affiliated and disruptive inmates who have attained a sense of violent empowerment.”


The report says staff in the units affected were inexperienced and undertrained corrections officers felt who “uncomfortable and fearful.”  


The prison yard at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (Photo: NDCS)


The Critical Incident Review

Click here for the report


The Background 

This report, Incident Review of Disturbance and Death of Two TSCI Inmates, was prepared by a team of prison operations experts from the National Institute of Corrections, an agency created by the U.S. Department of Justice. NIC delivered the final document to NDCS director Scott Frakes two months after the disturbance at the Tecumseh facility.

Ten days after receiving the report Frakes issued a news release announcing the creation of “Action Plans” based on the recommendations included in the report. He refused to release the report itself claiming, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star, the report contained “significant security information that could not be made public.”  NDCS released a copy to the inspector general of the prison system with the understanding it would not be distributed in its entirety. Members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee at the time do not recall being provided the study, even as they studied policy options relating to prison safety. Lawyers involved in some court cases involved in legal matters involving inmates were provided the report during evidence discovery but judges quickly sealed the record to block access to the media at the request of the Nebraska attorney general.

More recently NET News requested a copy of the 2017 report in light of the revelation NDCS had quietly hired consultants to review information about the 2015 riot. The existence of that study, first reported by NET, had been withheld both from the State Legislature and attorneys seeking information in criminal and civil lawsuits. 

Our request for the 2017 report, made through the state’s open record’s law, was denied by NDCS. NET News filed a formal petition to Attorney General Doug Peterson questioning the legality of the withholding the report. A short time later the report arrived from NDCS. There was no response from Attorney General Peterson ruling on the legality of withholding the report.


 

The description is included in a report prepared by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) that was never released publicly by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. (Elements of the report were summarized in the 2017 annual report by the Office of the Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System.)

The report went on to recommend a number of changes at the facility and within Nebraska’s correctional system including: 

•    Review of “inmate management and control problems”

•    Improve the speed and effectiveness of staff response to emergencies.

•    Increase efforts to control contraband, like drugs and cellphones.

•    Reduce readily-available homemade alcohol.

•    Programming to improve behavior and shorten time in jail

In March 2017, following a scuffle with a correctional officer seizing homemade alcohol from a cell, inmates took control of part of the housing unit where higher-risk inmates reside. Prison security did not regain control of the area for several hours. Once the smoke cleared from fires set in cell blocks and the prison yard, the bodies of Michael Galindo and Damon Fitzgerald were discovered. It had been the second violent confrontation with inmates in two years at Tecumseh.

Nebraska prison officials invited NIC to review the response and “contributing factor” in the disturbance. (Some have challenged the NDCS assertion that events did not rise to the level of a “riot.”) The NIC is a federal agency managed by the U.S. Department of Justice tasked with providing assistance and training to prisons nationwide. 

Public disclosure of the report, prompted by an open records request by NET News, serves as a reminder that some of the conditions that led to the previous violence at the prison remain a concern for state policymakers, correctional workers and the families of inmates. 

The review team compared the situation inside the prison in 2017 to places where gangs control entire neighborhoods.

“The inmates' behavior at (the Tecumseh prison) is not dissimilar in character from the violent and intimidating dominance applied by gangs on city streets in control of their claimed territory.”

The report continued, “Up against this force is an inexperienced staff that is uncomfortable, if not fearful, to approach members of this inmate population.”

Some of the conclusions mirror the concerns raised by investigations completed two years earlier revealing the 2015 Tecumseh riot had been well coordinated by inmates and the prison understaffed with inexperienced officers. 

Jim Maguire, representing correctional workers in the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police, reviewed the report.  “I would say it pretty much nails it,” he says about the NIC's description, having spoken with his membership about conditions at Tecumseh.

Prison officials declined to comment, citing a host of criminal court cases and civil lawsuits currently in the courts.

The report also illustrates the division nationally within the corrections community over appropriate discipline for inmates violating prison rules. 

The NIC claims practices used by Nebraska were a contributing factor to the sense of unease at Tecumseh. The report states:

“It was evident to the review team during tours and inspection that inmates frequently do not follow existing rules and regulations and there appears, to some extent, to be an acceptance by line staff and some administrators that these violations cannot be effectively controlled. This was especially true regarding the relatively minor, but still important, rules and regulations such as those addressing inmate uniform/dress and housing.”

The NIC used as an example 25 inmates involved in the 2015 riot. While they were placed at the time in restrictive housing all had been released by the time the uprising occurred two years later. All were identified as having a role in the violence. 

The report speculates prison administrators failed to adequately consider the inmate's history of violence and the potential risk.

Inspector General of the Correctional System Doug Koebernick, says, “That part of the report troubled me"  because he was not convinced having those inmates in general population "was the cause of the riot was and blaming it on those 25 I think was a reach” for the NIC assessment.

The inspector general, part of the state’s ombudsman’s office, serves as an independent watchdog over the prison system and is retained by the Nebraska State Legislature.

Claims of insufficient and ineffective inmate discipline have become a common complaint by some correctional workers. 

“I think they have to get serious about the discipline within the correctional system,” says Maguire of the Nebraska FOP. “You can’t give them an inch because it creates problems down the road.”

To keep more dangerous inmates in check NIC recommended Nebraska “permit the use of disciplinary segregation for ‘flagrant or serious’ misconduct.” 

That approach is in conflict with the philosophical approach to discipline held by NDCS Director Scott Frakes. Action plan updates include the notation “NDCS will not use disciplinary segregation.” (Action plans, according to the NDCS, "provide a formal method of tracking recommendations from critical incident reviews.")

Frakes talks often about implementing a host of new programs centered on the belief that inmate behavior will improve if there are opportunities to meet the goals needed for a faster release for prison and opportunities after getting out. The department's 2019 Strategic Plan calls for expansion of those efforts.

While frequently a critic of Nebraska’s prison policies, Doug Koebernick agrees with the approach that isolation can block an inmate’s progress toward their eventual release from jail. 

“People have to have a pathway out of that setting,” he says. “It becomes more of a punishment than trying to help people trying to change their behavior.”

Koebernick says there are signs of improvement in responding to the level of gang activity throughout the system.  

“They have created an intelligence group that looks more into the gang activity, so you are seeing more inmates being placed in restrictive housing for alleged gang activity and gang involvement,” he said. “They believe that is impacting the gang’s ability to control facilities.”

One measure hints inmate crime is even worse than before the 2017 disturbance. According to data provided by NDCS, the number of criminal offenses taking place inside the facility jumped to 52 last year, or a 300 percent increase in five years. It’s not clear if that’s an increase in criminal activity or an increase in corrections requesting charges be filed.

The availability of illegal drugs and alcohol remains one of the most vexing problems throughout the prison system.


A seizure of homemade alcohol, or 'hooch' at a Nebraska correctional facility. (Photo: Inspector General's Office)


 

The discovery of a secret stash of 150 pounds inmate-distilled ‘hooch,’ triggered the series of events that lead to the confrontation at Tecumseh between inmates and prison staff. (Other accounts put the amount as high as 240 pounds or 30 gallons.) 

The federal report, noting the prevalence of ‘hooch,’ found it “unusual in corrections to have large and frequent discoveries of homemade alcohol” and cited the lax security which made it easy for inmates to brew their own alcohol. 

Calling it a “very serious issue” the report states “the dangerousness of alcoholic beverages in a prison environment urgently requires that this problem be addressed at TSCI.”

There are signs corrections officials have responded, but they have provided little data to show whether alcohol production and use have been reduced. 

According to an “Action Plan” progress report also obtained by NET News, procedures designed to limit access to the ingredients for hooch, like fruit from the kitchen, were implemented shortly after the incident.

Corrections officials has not released specific data related to the alcohol and drug infractions in its facilities to the inspector general’s office, but Koebernick believes “the level of alcohol being produced by prisoners within the system is quite high.” 

“I have instances all the time that come to my attention of gallons of alcohol being produced,” he said, “whether its 10 gallons, 20 gallons or 50 or sometimes 60 gallons of illegal alcohol or 'hooch' found in somebody’s cell.”  

In a 2017 news release, NDCS announced stepped-up efforts to control contraband, with an emphasis on drugs and alcohol. Frakes is quoted in the release as noting “more than 80 percent of Nebraska prisoners have some level of substance abuse issues” underscoring the importance of "taking proactive steps to control and detect the introduction of contraband in our correctional facilities."

The report made several references to understaffing at Tecumseh at the time of the disturbance and the comparative inexperience of the employees due to turnover in the ranks. 

Staffing remains a significant problem today. During a briefing for Nebraska state senators before the Judiciary Committee, Frakes said his department has “increased staff safety and we brought down turnover” while acknowledging there are more unfilled jobs than ever.  

He told the committee both keeping and retaining employees “is nowhere near where I want it to be, but we’re heading in the right direction.”  

For the head of the union representing correctional workers, the information included in the NIC analysis underscores there remain changes in mindset that still need to be made.

“They have to find a better way,” Maguire says. “What they are doing right now doesn’t seem to be working effectively. The last thing you need is riots and lawsuits and officers getting hurt and inmates getting hurt.”

The National Institute of Corrections report notes that many of the recommendations “may not only prove beneficial” at (Tecumseh), but at other correctional facilities managed by the state. Despite offering additional training and consultation, the agency has not been invited to return to Nebraska by prison officials. 

Discussion

 

blog comments powered by Disqus