LINCOLN — The state prison system should review how it uses solitary confinement to punish inmates and update an inadequate system of gathering data, a state performance audit recommended Monday.
The report by the Legislature’s Performance Audit Committee adds to the list of concerns facing the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
The state’s prisons have been chronically overcrowded, leading to a recent report that said more than $200 million in new construction is necessary. In June, The World-Herald revealed that hundreds of inmates’ release dates had been miscalculated, prompting the premature release of dozens of prisoners sentenced for serious offenses.
Monday’s 134-page audit found that the department lacked clear statutory guidelines as to what constitutes “serious or flagrant” behavior that warrants solitary confinement or a loss of good time. It recommended that
guidelines be adopted, and that several other laws pertaining to incarceration and mental health assessments be reviewed.
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One suggestion was to eliminate the term “solitary confinement” from state law, because that “extreme” form of isolation — “completely insulating the inmate from all sights and sounds” — is no longer used.
State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, chairman of the audit panel, said the state needs to review whether it is following national best practices that aim to reduce lengthy stays in isolation. Lawmakers, he said, also need to determine if state funding has kept up with the explosion in the prison population, which has grown by 12 percent, or 579 inmates, over the past four years.
State prisons, as of Oct. 31, held about 1,900 more inmates than their capacity of 3,275 — 58 percent over capacity. That figure does not include 163 state inmates now housed at county jails across the state.
“I don’t think our budget has kept abreast,” Harms said.
State Corrections Director Mike Kenney, in a written response to the audit, said that while state law may lack clear guidelines, department policies on the use of solitary confinement are clear.
He said that his department does have sufficient data on inmates but that the information is in paper files and not in an easier-to-use electronic form.
Kenney said that the department’s computer system dates to the 1990s and that the department is taking steps to address its deficiencies.
Prison officials prefer the term “restrictive housing” rather than “solitary confinement.” Whatever the term, segregation normally requires inmates to stay in their cell for 23 hours a day, with an hour of recreation in a caged enclosure some call a “dog run.”
As of mid-September, 719 inmates, or about 14 percent of the Nebraska prison population at the time, were in restrictive housing for misbehavior, to disrupt gang activity or for their own protection.
Such confinement, and the lack of mental health treatment afforded there, was a key issue in the case of Nikko Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate who killed four Omahans just days after being released from prison in July 2013.
Jenkins had spent almost all of his final two years in prison in solitary confinement. While in “the hole,” Jenkins cut himself, used his blood to write messages on the walls of his cell and promised to go on a killing spree if he didn’t get treatment at a mental hospital.
Nationally, authorities on the use of segregation cells advocate a reduction in their use, and emphasize the need for transition programming and resocialization before an inmate is released into the public. Concerns also have been voiced about the lack of mental health treatment afforded in segregation, which typically holds more inmates with serious mental illness.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who is heading up another legislative committee probing the Jenkins case, said that his panel’s Nov. 25 hearing will focus on the state’s use of solitary confinement, as well as whether the state prison system is doing enough to handle an increase in mentally ill inmates.
“We need to have something for them besides sitting in a room for 23 hours and going out to a dog run,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re just making these people worse.”
The audit committee is one of three state panels probing the state prison system. One, headed by Lathrop, is focusing mostly on the Jenkins case; another, headed by Gov. Dave Heineman, is working with the national Council of State Governments to come up with lower-cost alternatives to building new prisons.