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ACLU issues lawsuit against the Nebraska Department of Corrections

r County Department of Corrections. This building houses the Parole Board, a part of the Department of Corrections that the ACLU is suing. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star.

Nebraska is notorious for having a less than sufficient department of corrections. The government is failing to pass reforms and the department of corrections is failing to do anything that could help those behind bars. Those prisoners have no voice but they are slowly being heard through the tireless efforts of the Nebraska ACLU.

Amy Miller is the legal director at the ACLU office in Lincoln. While directing the litigations brought against the Nebraska government, Miller also directs educational services to the public focused on the well-being of inmates.

ACLU stands for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the oldest non-profits in the country. The mission of the ACLU is to protect the Constitution, a mission that is tested every day. The ACLU protects the people by building cases against the government, but it also relies on donations. 

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

Since the ACLU primarily relies on private donations, the organization has to be selective in which cases it takes on. Currently, the ACLU is working on a lawsuit against the Nebraska Department of Corrections to take action against the failing qualities of prisons across the state. 

“In 2017, we filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 11 people 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. 

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. 

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, the basic needs of people with disabilities are not being met and Nebraska is overusing solitary confinement,” Miller said. 

Currently, the ACLU is waiting to see if the lawsuit will be certified as a class action. 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 on 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 help the 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. We don’t need them to be traumatized, stretched thin and working mandatory overtime,” Miller said.

 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.