The speakers engage in the forum
Photo credit: Jazari Kual/Nebraska News Service

LINCOLN–With some of the most overcrowded prisons in the country, Nebraska’s correctional system is at a crossroads as the possibility of the construction of a new prison looms. 

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln hosted the Flatwater Free Press Nov. 16 for a forum titled “Nebraska’s prisons at a crossroads.” Four speakers, each representing a different aspect of Nebraska’s prison system, spoke on the lack of support for incarcerated people, which they primarily attributed to overcrowding and understaffing.

The panel included Mark Foxall, former Douglas County Department of Corrections director, Doug Koebernick, inspector general of the Nebraska Correctional System, Carla Walker, a formerly incarcerated military veteran and Jasmine Harris, the director of policy and public advocacy for RISE, a nonprofit organization focused on helping incarcerated individuals prepare for societal reentry.  

According to Flatwater Free Press editor Matthew Hansen, the forum is a new type of journalism: journalism on stage.

“Journalism doesn’t have to end the second you put down a newspaper or stop watching a video,” Hansen said. “That conversation is important. And that you can learn things journalistically and share things journalistically while we’re sitting together.”

Reporter Natalia Alamdari moderated the event. She spent the last year covering the Nebraska prison system for the Flatwater Free Press. 

The forum’s discussion revolved around a lack of resources available to inmates, which is directly tied to statewide overcrowding and understaffing. Walker, who served a 15-20 year prison sentence in York and at Lincoln’s Work Release Center, contextualized a variety of problems with one story.

After being incarcerated in 2014 for a violent crime, Walker said she was told upon initial evaluation to immediately request anger management help. She went through proper channels throughout her served time to receive said support, but upon release in 2021, she had yet to be given access to any anger management program. 

“I’m a military veteran who committed a violent crime. You really want to send me back out there, and I haven’t had help?” Walker said. “I’ve been asking for help.”

She said she couldn’t acquire anger management classes because she wouldn’t physically fight for them and likened the Department of Corrections to an abusive partner, where help is required, but every time one tries to get access, their hands are slapped.

According to Harris, 95% of incarcerated individuals eventually integrate back into society; getting employment for these people is difficult and needs to be prioritized. She said that about 80% of people who are rearrested do not have a job. 

“That’s where that rubber hits the road, where we need to be helping folks when we have the opportunity,” Harris said. “If we don’t, then what are we doing? We’re rendering them to where they can’t meet their basic needs. So then, what do people do? They return to those criminogenic behaviors because they have to survive.”

Currently, Nebraska has a 31% recidivism rate, which refers to the percentage of incarcerated people who complete a sentence and find themselves back within the system in less than three years.

Foxall said rethinking the prison system cannot just be done internally but requires a front-end overhaul of issues that bring people into the system. He focused on infrastructure, pointing towards a lack of housing, proper education and opportunities for citizens living in poverty. 

“Trauma will begin before you arrive in jail before you arrive in prison,” Foxall said “It’s very difficult to treat trauma in a place of confinement.”

According to the panel, a lot of these issues can be tied to prison overcrowding. Nebraska prisons have surpassed Alabama to become the nation’s most overcrowded, according to World-Herald analysis, and are currently operating at 151% of their capacity.

This problem began in the 90s when the population began increasing, Koebernick said, leaving the state with two options. He said the first was to build more prison beds, while the other was to change how long inmates remain in prison. The former was taken, and the problems remain.

Over time, he said, due to population increases, Nebraska prisons reached a point where prisons were operating at 160% capacity — if a prison is designed to hold 100 people, it’s holding 160. He said that number has gone down, though, and is projected to decrease to 139% later this year.

Harris said Nebraska prison overcrowding has been an issue since 1982 and continues to plague the state to this day. She cited recent failed attempts to tackle this problem, like ​​LB920, which was indefinitely postponed and would enact a series of evidence-based strategies to reduce inmate populations and lower recidivism, as proponents have built into the problem. 

“If elected officials aren’t listening to you, if they aren’t really taking a hard look at what is going on that gets us out of the situation, then you find yourself where you are,” Harris said.

Koebernick described a situation upon beginning his job where he entered a singular room that housed eight men, all lying on top of each other. This was at the Omaha Corrections Center, which he said is designed to hold 390 people and currently houses around 800.

“That’s a really difficult position for the individuals who are incarcerated, that have to live in those types of confined conditions, and it’s really difficult for staff to maintain order and discipline in a facility when people are just upset about living on top of each other,” Foxall said. “I certainly understand that. It’s difficult to manage a facility that is over its designed capacity.”

On top of the increasing prison overcrowding, the panel discussed the lack of correctional facilities staffing across Nebraska.

According to Kobernick, the department currently has more vacancies in regard to psychologists and therapists than ever. He said there are supposed to be 18 psychologists working for the Department of Corrections. Currently, they have six. 

He also said over half of the mental health therapist positions remain empty. 

With so little staffing availability, many employees work overtime. Alamdari referenced a past article that covered a Nebraska Department of Correctional Services employee who averaged 97 hours of work per week, nearly doubling his salary in overtime. 

Flatwater Free Press reached out to outgoing Nebraska Department of Corrections director Scott Frakes to speak to these issues on the panel, but he declined. 

Because of the 25% vacancy rate, Koebernick said the staffing shortage causes impairment in facilities’ day-to-day functions, which directly affects inmates’ quality of life.  Lockdowns, where inmates cannot leave their rooms, happened for more hours than ever.

According to Koebernick, on weekends, inmates’ days started roughly an hour and a half later than normal and ended around 5:30 p.m. instead of 6.

“In July, they’d be looking out their window at six o’clock at night, seeing the sun and everything and being locked in their cell,” Koebernick said. “That did not help the stress level in those facilities.”

A lack of staffing negatively impacts the employees as well as the inmates. Foxell said that because incarcerated individuals were less able to socialize in times of lockdown, high tensions created a more stressful environment for staff members who already were working longer hours.

“Those jobs are very difficult,” Koebernick said. “I admire the people who are in them, and they work very hard. And some of them put in some crazy hours.”

Building a new state penitentiary, something Gov. Pete Ricketts has displayed outspoken support for, which was not approved in the previous legislative session, was another point for conversation.

Koebernick said a lack of staffing was a key factor for funding not being passed and said that if another prison was to be built, it should be a therapeutic community that has more job training skills.

“Repeating the same behavior and expecting different results is insanity,” Walker said. “If you don’t have the staffing, how do you build a new building when you need programming? You need programming.”

For the Flatwater Free Press, the event represented a different take on journalism, one that displayed state problems firsthand to an audience. Hansen mentioned that the audience looked to be half Flatwater readers and half UNL students. 

“I wanted people to walk away learning something new, maybe having more questions themselves and having a better understanding of the ins and outs of the prison system,” Alamdari said.