Murder and assaults on Nebraska corrections workers highlight risks in local jails

A Saunders County correctional officer watches security screens at the jail. (Photo by BIll Kelly, NET News)
Security screens from the Saunders County Correctional Center. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
A security check at the Saunders County Correctional Center. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Saunders County Correctional Center. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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March 13, 2014 - 6:30am

Nearly 200 corrections officers have been assaulted by inmates in county and city jails across Nebraska in the past five years. The numbers were compiled by NET News from reports provided by the state's Jail Standards Board. Reports filed by individual counties do not detail whether officers were seriously injured or the nature of individual incidents.

In the state prison system 11 serious attacks on staff were reported since 2009 and another 234 were categorized as non-serious, according to statistics provided by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

NET requested the reports following the February murder of a corrections officer on the job at the Scotts Bluff County Correctional Center.  Two juveniles have been charged with killing Amanda Baker.  One inmate is accused of strangling her after she entered his cell.  A second was allegedly aware the attack was likely and could be part of an escape attempt.

That incident is the nightmare scenario for scores of women and men working at county jails across the state. Officers at the Saunders County Correctional Center in Wahoo, Neb. were deeply affected by the news. 

“Three of my shift officers told me it shook them up,” Sgt. Craig Gottschalk said.  “We talk about it and it’s a reality, but it’s not a reality until it hits home.”

Security check of jail cells. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Gottschalk supervises the night shift at the county jail. Baker was killed on the same shift.  Many in corrections are using the incident as a ‘teaching moment’ for fellow officers to underscore the risks inherent in the job.

“I want every officer who walks onto shift at night to understand that they may not walk home in the morning,” Gottschalk said.  “I want them to appreciate that fact.”

The Saunders County facility is comparatively new for the state of Nebraska.  In 2009 the county shut its decrepit 90-year-old jail and transferred the inmates to the new building next door. 

Annual jail inspections have found the operation in full compliance with state regulations, including items designed to keep staff and inmates safe from attacks.  There have been three assaults on guards by inmates and four reports of prisoners attacking one another. 

“You never know what you are going to encounter from day to day," said Brian Styskal, the jail’s director.  “That’s something people find appealing bout this job. It’s not your standard nine-to-five behind a desk type of duty.”

Corporal Tracy Gyhra talks with another officer. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Corporal Tracy Gyhra, who took a job here after working in the high-security state prison in Tecumseh, says “it’s an interesting career.” 

“You deal with different inmates.  You deal with different situations.  Some good.  Some bad,” Gyhra said.

Gyhra says much of the bad can occur between midnight and four in the morning when new prisoners are being brought in for processing.

“Five out of ten times that’s when we have had to use force on people is because of drugs or alcohol-related incidents,” Gyhra said. She believes this part of the job puts local jailers at greater risk than when she dealt with prisoners classified as more dangerous in the state prison. 

“Here we get the DUIs fresh off the street. Or you have people who come in who are high in meth.  And that process of coming down from meth is pretty drastic,” Gyhra said. “In the state facility you never had to deal with that”. 

It is not only being under the influence that creates a difficult situation, but a new prisoner's realization of what is happening as they are transferred from the custody of a police officer to those assigned to lock them up until a court appearance. 

“All of a sudden they are coming off the elevator, they have to answer a bunch of questions,” Sgt. Gottschalk said. “This is when things start causing them to have issues and they decide they don’t like it.”

Some inmates respond by lashing out at the corrections officer. Sometimes it might be with words, but it can also be very physical.

Corrections Director Brian Styskal in a typical cell. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The Saunders County jail becomes a temporary home for local prisoners as well as inmates transferred from the over-capacity lock-up in Dodge County.  The U.S. Marshall also uses cells here to house federal offenders waiting for a court hearing.

The mix of personalities, backgrounds and ethnic groups can be volatile, so guards are trained to keep an eye on both individual behavior and the overall feel of the mood of the commons areas when prisoners are mingling. 

At one of the central monitoring stations recently two officers, one male, one female, kept an eye on pods of jail cells surrounding the commons areas.  Men are assigned to one area and female prisoners to the other.  At the time, the jail was still in lock-down while the regular headcount was completed.  Later it would be up to the officers to watch the video images from cameras across the facility as well as patrol the floor.   

Director Styskal says it is all about “maintaining order.”

“Making sure the inmates don’t’ have contraband on them. They are not passing or receiving or trading items, gambling,” Styskal said. “If you can dream up what goes on here, that is what is going on.”

Security camera feeds at the Saunders Corrections Center. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Corrections officers talk about how quickly the atmosphere can change when prisoners mix in the commons area of any lock-up. Gottschalk says he has seen that first hand and recommends to new hires taking a measure of the room by watching through the glass is an important first step in making rounds.

“We try and teach our officers before you walk through that door, look through the windows, see what’s going on, see where inmates are at before you step into that situation and walk into harm’s way,” Gottschalk said.

When an officer has a bad feeling about a situation, even if it appears everything is normal on the surface, the common advice is to do a reality check with other officers.

“You have to trust your instincts,” the jail’s director said during the tour.   “It’s those situations where you can walk somewhere and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you can’t point out what is causing that but you feel something there is not quite right.”

It is the responsibility of any corrections officer to look out for their own well-being, and Corporal Ghyra says a little healthy caution is the best approach.  “Never get comfortable where you are at,” Ghyra said. “Always know your escape route.  Know that the radio is accessible anytime.  If you don’t feel comfortable, call for back up just for an extra person to be in there.”

Corrections officer Craig Gottschalk. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

It’s also important for officers to show confidence in both their performance and in their knowledge of the facility's rules and regulations.  Gottschalk says a new officer’s authority will be tested almost immediately and if there is any confusion or doubt “you are dead in the water.”

Gyhra learned quickly how she carried herself among inmates was critical for her to gain the respect of the prison population.  A lack of confidence is evident.  “When you walk on a housing unit, you can see if someone is secure about themselves or not secure about themselves and unfortunately these guys feed into that.”

The Nebraska Jail Standards Board chose not to conduct its own investigation into the circumstances behind the murder of Amanda Baker at the Scotts Bluff County Corrections Center. If there is a review of what happened or if there is a need to examine policies and procedures at the jail it will be left to local law enforcement authorities. Recent state inspections of the Scotts Bluff County jail found it in full compliance with regulations, including staff training and safety procedures.

The corrections officers in Saunders County say the incident caused them to think about their own routines and habits on the job.  They expect others around the state to do the same.  

“In my mind, that incident shows that (if you make) one mistake, of not being aware of your surroundings, it can turn very ugly,” Gottschalk said.   “Each one of us is here to make sure the other will go home to their family in the morning.  In that situation, it didn’t happen.”





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