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ACLU announces legislative bill aimed to help inmates before and after they leave prison

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The Nebraska State Penitentiary houses nearly 5,000 inmates from all across Nebraska

Nebraska is known for having a less than sufficient corrections system. The government is failing to pass reforms and the corrections system is losing the battle against the increasing convict population.

Those prisoners have no voice, but they are slowly being heard through the tireless efforts of the Nebraska American Civil Liberties Union. 

Amy Miller is the former legal director at the ACLU office in Lincoln. While directing the litigations brought against the Nebraska government, Miller also directed educational services to the public. Her role in the organization contributed to the birth of the Nebraska Department of Corrections lawsuit.

The ACLU is one of the oldest non-profits in the country. Their mission is to protect the U.S. Constitution, a mission that is tested every day. The ACLU helps disenfranchised people by building cases against the government, but they also rely on the people for donations.

“We are funded by private donations, people who look at us and think we are doing a good work make donations,” Miller said. 

Since the ACLU primarily relies on private donations, they have to be selective in which cases they choose to take on. Currently, the ACLU is working on a lawsuit against the Nebraska Corrections System to take action against the failing qualities of prisons across the state. 

“In 2017, we filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 11 people currently incarcerated saying these people are typical of what’s happening in Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons,” Miller said. 

The lawsuit began with the 11 people who were interviewed about the conditions within the prisons. However, the lawsuit will encompass all the people currently in custody and their personal experiences within these borders. 

One such story is about Jason Galle. While he was being pursued by the police, Galle was shot in the leg, lodging into his femur bone. Galle received medical attention in county jail, but when he was convicted and sent to the state penitentiary, he was numerously denied medical care.

“Galle filed grievance after grievance, repeatedly asking to be seen by medical. When he was allowed medical care, he was only ever seen by a nurse,” Miller said. “He would talk to the nurse but she would never physically examine him.”

Three years later, after the ACLU had filed the lawsuit, Galle was brought in to see a doctor. After getting an x-ray, it was revealed that the bone had broken again. Galle had been walking on a broken bone for three years, without being seen by a medical professional.

“While we had interviews with thousands of incarcerated people, Jason’s story typifies what we had been hearing from people over and over again,” Miller said. “The denial of medical care and the inadequate usage of the medical care available.”

The ACLU is suing the Nebraska government as well as the Parole Board.

For prisoners to be eligible for parole, they need to complete mandatory educational programs. For the inmates who are blind or suffer from another disability, the Parole Board fails to give them the help they need to finish the program. Because of this, many inmates are ineligible for parole, resulting in the inmates remaining at the prison. 

Miller said the lawsuit will focus on five primary issues that are lacking in the Nebraska Corrections system. 

“The people currently in custody and in the prison system are facing inadequate medical care, inadequate mental health care, inadequate dental care,” Miller said. “The basic needs of people with disabilities are not being met and Nebraska is overusing solitary confinement.”

Currently, the ACLU is waiting to see if the lawsuit will be certified as a class action. According to classaction.org, in a class action, the plaintiff can sue the defendant on behalf of a group, or class, of people who are absent in the case. In typical lawsuits, the parties the plaintiff is suing for have to be present for the lawsuit to continue. 

“If the lawsuit is certified as a class action, anything that happens from here will benefit everyone in custody and anyone in prison in the future,” Miller said. 

The ACLU is looking to change the conditions and make sure that Nebraska is rehabilitating people, taking care of them while they are in custody and preparing them for the outside world once the inmate leaves prison. 

Yet, the lawsuit is not only going to help those currently incarcerated, but it will also improve the conditions for prison staff. Currently, Nebraska is low on prison staff and because of this, the current staff is forced to work back-to-back shifts. 

“We need to do right by the people who are wearing uniforms that are working behind bars to keep the rest of us safe,” Miller said. “We don’t need them to be traumatized, stretched thin and working mandatory overtime.”

In the end, the ACLU hopes that the Nebraska Legislature will continue to pass legislation to better reform the Department of Corrections. For this to be a success, the number of inmates coming into the prison system needs to slow down, while the number of inmates being reintroduced to society needs to increase. 

“We have to do right by everyone, the prisoners, the community, and the staff who are working there,” Miller said. 

ACLU Lawsuit moves up the ranks of the Nebraska Legislature

Once the bill was introduced to the Legislature, it was given to a section of the legislature known as the fiscal office. The fiscal office determines the financial impact the bill could have on the specific department that it is targeting. 

For the ACLU bill, the department that will be affected is the Department of Corrections.

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The Lancaster County Department of Corrections. LB 133 is looking to change the quality of the treatment of the inmates. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star

“The fiscal note shall set forth the fiscal impact of the bill and the government subdivision affected by the fiscal impact as determined by the Legislative Fiscal Analyst,” said Doug Nichols, the curator of the ACLU bill’s fiscal note.

Doug Nichols is part of the fiscal office’s creative team. His job is to create fiscal notes and combine information from other departments within the capital to evaluate the financial impact those departments could face.

The fiscal note for the ACLU bill, Legislative Bill 133, states the financial impact that the lawsuit could have on the Department of Corrections. 

The driving force behind the lawsuit is to convince the legislative branch of the Nebraska government to change the way they re-educate prisoners. The goal is to have more prisoners leaving the compound rather than bringing in more than capacity allows. 

Upon review, the lawsuit would have a minimal fiscal impact, if none, to the Department of Corrections. However, the legislation could affect the availability of services for individuals on probation that will be on post-release supervision. 

The Supreme Court, as well as the Parole Board, can help navigate the individuals on probation while the lawsuit is in effect. 

For the lawsuit to continue through the legislation, a fiscal note needs to be attached. The note will help document the authenticity of the bill and provide evidence of the financial impacts that precede it. 

“No bill which has a fiscal impact shall be heard by a committee and considered on General File unless the fiscal note is attached,” Nichols said. 

LB 133 will have a minimal impact on the Department. However, there is a possibility of some financial impacts. The bill is currently sitting in general file, the first of three stages of debate. 

During this time, a committee will analyze the bill and send it out to agencies that could be impacted by the provisions of the bill. LB 133 could have a potential impact on the Supreme Court, the Parole Board and the Department of Correctional Services. 

“As LB 133 sits in General File, if any amendments are adopted that could change the bill’s fiscal note, LB 133 could be amended to fit the new criteria,” Nichols said. “LB 133 can also be returned to committee for further analysis, indefinitely postponed or be advanced to Select File.” 

The next two steps behind General File are Select File and Final Reading. 

During the Final Reading stage, the clerk of the legislature reads the entire bill aloud, and senators vote without debate on whether to submit the bill to the governor. 

LB 133 currently sits on General File, meaning that it is unknown at this time whether the bill will continue up the legislative branch. 

Because LB 133 is focused on the Department of Correctional Services, a potential fiscal impact will be averted because of the existing resources. 

“LB 133 is targeting the mistreatment of inmates from the moment they enter the prison to when they eventually leave,” Nichols said. “However, because the issue can be solved from inside the prison, with the resources that they already use, the fiscal impact is greatly dissolved.” 

The Department of Correctional Services is less than sufficient in properly documenting and re-educating their prisoners. Many inmates are handicapped, making it more difficult for them to meet the requirements for release.

LB 133 is asking for the Department of Corrections to reevaluate their existing policies and make it easier for prisoners to complete their educational requirements, a feat that can be accomplished without the threat of a significant financial burden. 

“At this point in the lawsuit, it is unknown how the events will play out, however, we hope for a positive outcome,” Nichols said. 

The future of LB 133 is unknown, however, the impact that it may have could benefit many people who are currently behind bars and the entire department as a whole.