Paul Feilmann, a self-described activist and advocate, poses for a portrait with a poster outside the Nebraska Capitol on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Photo by Mia Everding

Nearly every weekday morning since September 2019, Paul Feilmann sets out a collapsible chair on a patch of ground outside the Nebraska Governor’s Mansion in Lincoln. He props two weathered signs near his chair, and for the next eight hours, he paces the grass and nearby sidewalk. A bitter north wind rails against the white sign near his chair, but the two words are as clear as ever. 

“Prison reform.” 

Feilmann, a self-described activist and advocate, has been posting a vigil outside the Governor’s Mansion since September 2019. The Omaha native drives the hour-long trip to Lincoln at 6:30 a.m. to find parking and set up his chair and signs. There’s not always a lot of traffic that crosses by his signs, but Feilmann said he talks to everyone who stops to chat. 

He said his interest in prison reform began after he retired from a 25-year career in mental health services. He said through his work in that profession, he saw the devastation that incarceration wreaked in families’ dynamics. At first, he didn’t see the connection between poverty and incarceration, but he said the two are intertwined. 

“The foundation of poverty is incarceration because there’s a racial history to it,” he said.  

Intergenerational incarceration plays a part in oppressing certain demographics, according to Feilmann. He described the cycle as people coming from poverty turn to drugs and gangs in order to make an income, but then go to prison, which sometimes leaves parent-sized holes in their children’s lives. Without the parents’ income, the children grow up at a disadvantage. 

“And then you start the cycle of intergenerational incarceration, because what are their kids going to do growing up in poverty?” he said. “Well, they’re going to sell drugs, and they’re going to get arrested; what are their kids going to do?” 

How incarceration devastates communities is like a disease invading a healthy body, Feilmann said. 

“It’s a form of cancer in your body, so why would you care that you have cancer in your leg when the rest of your body’s doing fine?” he said. 

The cancer weakens the community’s mental health as a whole because in order to have a healthy community, everyone has to be healthy. 

Valuing human life is partly what inspired Feilmann to begin his work as an activist and advocate. He quoted Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest and prison reform activist based out of Los Angeles, and said he wants people to meet their fullest potential. 

“It’s a value of all human beings — [seeing] human beings as having intrinsic worth and value and the need to meet their fullest potential,” he said. “[It’s] giving people the opportunity to have that potential and meet that.” 

Discrimination against former inmates once they’re liberated is something that stops people from reaching that potential, Feilmann said. 

One way to aide inmates who are still incarcerated is through direct interaction. Rex Walton, a former electronics specialist at the Post Office, has been friends with Feilmann since they met in the fall of 2018. The two are united in their passion for prison reform, but their skills take them in different directions. Walton spends time in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, teaching a writing program for inmates. 

Solitary confinement is what Feilmann hopes to change the most through his activism work. What makes solitary confinement so detrimental to inmates’ mental health, Feilmann said, is the time span of incarceration.  

“You’ll see guys and they’re just decompensating right in front of your eyes — guys within a month, just spiraling down, becoming mentally ill … guys talking about cutting themselves,” he said. 

Recently, he’s collaborated with Sen. Tony Vargas, who represents the 7th District, southeastern Omaha, in the Nebraska Legislature. On Jan. 23, 2019, Vargas introduced LB739, a bill that aims to restrict the use of solitary confinement in the Nebraska penitentiary system. The bill passed by the governor, which Feilmann described as “amazing.” 

For the future, what he and Walton hope for is increased community awareness. Feilmann said he wants to see former inmates succeed after their sentences are up. 

“[What I want to see is] people reintegrate back into the community as healthy, productive citizens,” he said.