Prison watchdog urges caution in opening new unit for highest risk inmates

Similar housing units have generated complaints about understaffing, vague rules and clear requirements for transfer to general population

By: - October 20, 2022 5:45 am
maximum security cells

A new, 384-bed maximum security wing at the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln, designed to hold the state’s most dangerous inmates, is supposed to receiving its first inmates this month. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A prison watchdog is urging caution as the state prepares to open a new, 384-bed unit designed to hold the state’s most dangerous inmates.

In a 29-page report released Wednesday, the Inspector General’s Office for Nebraska Corrections outlined a series of complaints, fielded from inmates and security staff, about the management of similar, high-security units at prisons in Tecumseh, York and Lincoln.

New unit cost $49 million

The report also maintained that Corrections was out of compliance with a state law that requires electronic tracking of the amount of out-of-cell time provided for inmates in such highly controlled units.

prison
The state Reception and Treatment Center on the western edge of Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The report outlined a series of recommendations for the department in opening the $49 million, maximum-custody unit at the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln, which has been billed as being specially designed to handle dangerous inmates. It is intended to replace repurposed housing units that now provide housing for disruptive inmates transitioning from solitary confinement (known as restrictive housing) to the general prison population and eventually to release.

Out-of-cell time a struggle

Such units, called the Intervention/Improvement Unit and the Behavior Intervention and Programming Unit, are designed to hold  inmates in a general population-like setting. But, the IG report said, they are operating more like restrictive housing, with the units struggling to provide the required out-of-cell time of 24 hours a week and rehabilitation programming.

“We need to learn from lessons of the past, and be thoughtful and cautious and transparent in moving forward,” said Doug Koebernick, the inspector general for Corrections. “You have to proceed with caution.”

Mike Chipman, the president of the union that represents corrections officers, said he also has concerns, mainly about recent reductions in the minimum staffing requirements for some state prison housing units, reductions that have left one officer overseeing units that used to require two.

The new Reception and Treatment Center facility, he said, is “state-of-the-art,” but he added, “we need to make sure we’re not short-staffing it.”

‘People get killed’ when staff is shorted

“When you short-staff a prison, that’s when people get killed,” Chipman said Wednesday evening.

Laura Strimple, chief of staff for Corrections, said that there is no timetable for when inmates will be moved into the new RTC housing unit but that it will be done in “stages,” as staff members complete necessary training and when construction is completed.

“We want to ensure all necessary steps are taken so both units are fully operational, safe and ready for occupancy by inmates,” Strimple said in an email response.

Among the recommendations by the inspector general:

  • Assure that security staff assigned to such a high-security unit have at least six months of experience and extra training for handling high-risk inmates.
  • Provide clear, written guidance on who should be placed in the high-security unit and clear guidelines on how inmates can transition to less-restrictive units. Vague rules and lack of reviews of housing status have sparked complaints and unrest by inmates.
  • Issue body cameras to staff working in the unit. Chipman added that “stab-proof vests” should be required for staff working in the new RTC unit because they will be working with inmates most prone to attacks on staff and other inmates. The life of an officer at the Tecumseh State Prison, he said, was likely saved recently by such a vest when the officer was stabbed in a high-security unit.
  • Create more incentives for positive behavior.
  • Establish better exercise yards at the new RTC and at a controlled management unit at the women’s prison in York. The exercise yards at York were described as small enclosures, with concrete walls on three sides and one fenced side that faces the back wall of a building only a few feet away.
  • Koebernick expressed concern that some inmates may become upset if they are transferred from a secure unit at the State Penitentiary that has a large, grass field for exercise to the RTC, where the yard is much smaller and is on a concrete pad.

‘Correctly designed’

Former State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, who retired last week, has described the new RTC, high-security unit as “correctly designed” to handle dangerous inmates who are prone to violence and smuggling of contraband. Frakes said it will “offer meaningful programming, treatment, and other interventions that are difficult or impossible to achieve in a restrictive housing setting.”

In its official response to the report, the Corrections Department said it will explore redesigning the exercise yard areas at the York women’s prison and recognizes that positive incentives work but that deployment of body cameras is subject to “negotiation and funding.”

The agency rejected the requirement of six months’ experience for officers working in the new unit.

“Post assignments are completed consistent with department policy and applicable labor contracts,” the agency stated.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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