'I have no control': Report details shortcomings of Nebraska's community corrections facilities

Inmates "know there is no retribution for going off the rails," one staff member said


By Andrew Wegley
Lincoln Journal Star
        
LINCOLN, Neb. — A new report from Nebraska's Inspector General of Corrections details "rampant substance abuse," overcrowding and a lack of meaningful mental health care available at the state's community corrections facilities in Lincoln and Omaha.

The 34-page report, published in late February, was the result of a months-long investigation conducted by Inspector General Doug Koebernick and his office after eight inmates walked away from the facilities in April 2021 alone.

In the first 11 months of 2021, 36 community corrections inmates — all but one of whom were less than a year from being eligible for parole — escaped the low-level custody facilities that are meant to help incarcerated men and women transition into life after custody by allowing inmates to maintain off-site jobs.

Beds are lined up inside a new facility at the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017.
Beds are lined up inside a new facility at the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

After his office investigated trends in walkaway incidents — interviewing staff members and escapees — Koebernick highlighted the lack of mental health care, "significant shortcomings" in the use of electronic-monitoring systems to track inmates and disparities in the punishment of men and women found guilty of escape as contributing factors in walkaways.

But above all, Koebernick and assistant inspector general Zach Pluhacek wrote in the report, inmates and staff pointed to stress as the root of problems among the incarcerated population at Community Corrections Center-Lincoln, the larger of the state's two community custody facilities and the focus of the report.

"When people go to community corrections centers, you would think that they wouldn't have a lot of stress because they're so much closer to leaving prison," Koebernick told the Journal Star.

"But, in reality, a lot of people — all of these new things are going on in their lives where they're reconnecting with the family, or they're trying to find a job or they're thinking about where to live. And so all these things actually add a lot more stress onto them."

Staff and inmates told the inspector general's office that the inherent pressures of transitioning out of custody are exacerbated by overcrowding and substance abuse — separate issues that are magnified by understaffing, according to the report.

Designed to house just more than 300 men and 82 women, the Lincoln facility houses nearly 600 inmates, with eight men often sharing rooms designed for four.

Even after a 2016 staffing analysis conducted by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services recommended each case manager at the facility have their caseload limited to 40 inmates, that ratio sits at approximately 100-to-1 in the Lincoln facility's four main housing units.

Staff members told the inspectors that the overcrowding makes it difficult for employees to police behavior, track inmates' whereabouts and identify who is responsible for contraband, all while assisting with reentry.

The report notes that "virtually everyone" who spoke to the office acknowledged that drug use — namely methamphetamine and K2, or synthetic marijuana — is widespread.

"I have no control in this facility," one staff member told the office. "They know there is no retribution for going off the rails."

James Jansen, warden of Community Corrections Center-Lincoln, told the inspector general's office that administrators take a hard line against those suspected of trafficking contraband into the facility while also weighing their pending reentry into society.

Those suspected of dealing drugs within the facility — and drug users who repeatedly relapse as they transition back into the community — are routinely sent to state prisons, Jansen told Koebernick's office.

But the unbridled access to substances in the facility persists, according to the report.

The inspector general's foremost recommendation to Scott Frakes, the Department of Correctional Services' director, was to "right-size" the population at the Lincoln facility while seeking work release opportunities outside of Lincoln and Omaha.

Frakes, though, rejected the recommendation in his response to the report, noting the cost of operating smaller facilities elsewhere or contracting with county jails to house work release inmates, as the report had suggested.

The head of Nebraska's prison system since 2015, Frakes noted the state has invested $22 million into the Lincoln facility in "creating a healthy environment for the people who live and work there."

Among the five specific recommendations Koebernick's office made, Frakes didn't outright accept any of them, rejecting two and requesting modifications to three.

And in his responses, the director wrote that he doesn't agree that escapes are tied to the size, location or quality of mental health care offered at either community corrections facility.

"I'm very surprised by what he had to say," Koebernick said, referring to Frakes' response. "Because the facts just don't back it up."

In a written statement to the Journal Star, Frakes said the department has found the most prevalent reason inmates walk away from the facilities has to do with the state of a personal relationship — a reason Koebernick also said came up frequently in his office's review.

"Poor impulse control, substance use, self-sabotage ... and other issues can also result in the decision to leave," Frakes said. "Sometimes, it is a combination of reasons."

Frakes also rejected the notion that the Lincoln facility is overcrowded. Asked if the department has plans to reduce the population there, Frakes said the facility has a "statutory operational capacity of 575 people."

"The current count is 588 people," Frakes said, "with a total of 660 beds."

The increase in population at the Lincoln facility in the past six years — two additional housing units have opened there since 2016 — has come as access to mental health care at the facility has decreased.

Substance-use counselors are the only designated mental health professionals on staff at the Lincoln facility, and two of four such positions were vacant when the inspector general's office completed its report. Additional mental health care services are provided by staff from other facilities.

But staff and inmates who spoke with Koebernick's office described "waiting days or weeks for responses to their requests for help from mental health staff, if they are seen at all," according to the report. Services are targeted to individuals with specific "levels of care" defined by the Department of Correctional Services.

Nebraska previously allowed people incarcerated at the state's community corrections centers to pay for mental health services from area providers, but that option has been revoked, according to the report, even though state statute allows it.

Koebernick's office asked Corrections Department administrators about the policy change, "but received no specific response to the questions asked," according to the report.

In his response to the office's recommendation that the department should provide all community corrections inmates with appropriate mental health treatment, Frakes wrote that all inmates do have access to treatment "consistent with the community standard of care" but agreed that a review of treatment provided is warranted.

In his statement to the Journal Star, Frakes said the internal review is ongoing and being led by the department's medical director. He said the review will help determine best approaches to ensure that all mental health needs at the facility are met.

Frakes also committed to a review of community corrections staff policy and the use of electronic monitoring systems to track inmates based on recommendations by Koebernick's office.

The report found that staff haven't used the tracking devices to their full potential, noting a lack of random checks allows technical issues and off-course inmate behavior to go unnoticed for "lengthy periods of time."

In one instance, staff found that an inmate at the Lincoln facility had been making unauthorized stops outside the facility every day for six months, including one afternoon where he stopped at the playground of an elementary school for 20 minutes near dismissal time.

"This inmate is serving a 30- to 35-year sentence for first-degree sexual assault of a minor," Koebernick's office wrote in the report.

Frakes declined to share details on the department's review of the monitoring devices, citing security concerns.

The inspector general's investigation also uncovered disparities in punishments for men and women found guilty of escape after walking away from the corrections facilities.

Of the 36 walkaways Koebernick's office reviewed, 24 inmates were found guilty of escape, including 18 men and six women.

All 18 men lost "good time," a form of sentence reduction that inmates earn by maintaining good behavior. Most of the men lost six months' worth of good time, the maximum punishment for escape.

Only one woman — who forfeited 30 days of good time — lost any, according to the report.

But Frakes rejected the inspector general's recommendation to review disciplinary records and address issues of equity in administrative sanctions. In his response, Frakes said the process allows for discretion in determining appropriate punishment while ensuring inmates their due process rights.

The inspector general of the prisons system was created by the Legislature in 2015 to "provide for increased accountability and oversight" of the state's corrections division.

Koebernick told the Journal Star that he hoped the report wasn't taken as an indictment of staff at the two community corrections facilities, who he said are doing their best despite being "dealt a really difficult hand."

"They care a lot about those people out there," he said.

And Koebernick said he knows his office's reports aren't always well-received by Frakes and his department. But he's confident in the report, he said.

In his response to Frakes, Koebernick wrote that he is hopeful the department won't minimize the issues the report uncovered. The inspector general declined to modify his recommendations, as the director had requested.

"I disagree with him," Koebernick said.

(c)2022 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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