Senators discuss solitary confinement, puppy mills, gas tax increase

Nebraska Capitol rotunda dome (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 20, 2015 - 5:39pm

Restricting the use of solitary confinement in prisons, increasing regulations on puppy mills, and increasing the gas tax to repair county bridges were all discussed in the Nebraska Legislature Friday.

During last year’s investigation into Nebraska prisons, lawmakers learned that Nebraska uses solitary confinement, or administrative segregation, more than many other states. The issue was highlighted by the case of Nikko Jenkins, who spent six of the ten years he was incarcerated in segregation before being released and killing four people in Omaha.

This year, Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus has introduced legislation that would require the Department of Correctional Services to put out a plan to reduce the use of segregation or other forms of isolation, and report on segregated inmates’ mental health.

Among those supporting the proposal at a public hearing was Robert Bryan, a Lutheran minister who serves inmates in prison. Bryan said he met Friday morning with an inmate who had been in segregation for five months. "He told me as I visited with him that he didn’t think he was crazy before he started. But after being in there for a while he says he started to go nuts," Bryan said.

"His unit manager is supportive of his getting returned to the general population, but for some reason he keeps getting denied. And it appears that what is lacking is some clear, objective guidelines on why someone should be in there," Bryan continued. "If he has mental health issues he shouldn’t be in there because he has mental helath issues. He should be getting treatment."

Schumacher’s bill also would create a work group to advise the department on the proper treatment and care of offenders in long-term segregation. Under the proposal, the work group would include department officials, prisoner advocates, and mental health professionals. Corrections Director Scott Frakes said he supports the bill, but asked the committee to consider allowing him to design the membership of the work group. "I welcome the inclusion of outside groups, but would like the flexibility to include, for example, correctional staff who work in restricted housing on a daily basis," Frakes said. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

On another subject, the chairman of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee said he hopes to have agreement on a bill to increase regulation of dog breeding facilities in the next three weeks. Critics say the state hasn’t done enough to regulate inhumane conditions in puppy mills; breeding facility operators say most operations are well run, and overregulation could put them out of business.

Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo said he understands why the issue is important. "People that see those animals and have those animals brought to rescue definitely see the worst examples. And it’s emotional," he said. "It’s very important that we take care of those animals. They can’t speak for themselves. So it’s very importatnt that we put together the proper legislation."

Four different bills have been introduced on the subject. Johnson says he hopes the committee can begin hammering out a final draft next week, and have something in shape by March 10 to advance to the full Legislature for debate.

And gas taxes in Nebraska could go up to match a pending increase in Iowa, according to the chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion has proposed raising the gas tax by one and a half cents a gallon over each of the next four years, for a total of six cents a gallon, for bridge repair. Smith said that would put Nebraska’s taxes on par with those in Iowa, where a 10 cent a gallon increase appears to be on the fast track.

Smith said his committee has a public hearing coming up on the proposal. "We have to make the case for the needs that we have in our state -- for the funding," Smith said. "If it’s not the fuel tax, then were going to have to find out where the funding is going to come from. Or else were going to have continuing disrepair of our rural bridges."

Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he opposes a gas tax increase. The public hearing on the issue is scheduled for March 6.

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