10/11 investigates changes NDCS has made to reduce the number of inmates walking away

Community Corrections Center - Lincoln
Community Corrections Center - Lincoln(KOLN)
Published: Dec. 7, 2022 at 6:26 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Almost 30 times so far this year the Nebraska Department of Corrections has alerted the community that they’re looking for a missing inmate.

It’s an issue the state’s corrections watchdog highlighted in a report earlier this year.

Those inmates walk away from either the Lincoln Community Corrections Center or a similar facility in Omaha. They’re low custody programs where inmates come and go to work or to look for jobs.

Data shows over the years a few hundred of those inmates left and didn’t return.

As of December 2022, there are four inmates: Danielle Zelazny, Robert Moss, Devante Prusia, and Richard Reynolds are missing from NDCS community corrections.

They all walked away, it’s happened 28 times so far this year, 17 from the Lincoln facility and 11 from Omaha.

“We just had somebody this past month I believe was three days away from being paroled,” said Doug Koebernick, the Ombudsman of the Department of Corrections. “And it makes you wonder why, why would they do that?”

That’s a question Koebernick set out to answer in a report from earlier in the year.

His office interviewed inmates who walked away and came back. They found a big driver of the walkaways was stress, mental health concerns, or substance abuse.

With those findings in mind, Koebernick made suggestions to increase mental health support.

“One of the things that they have a problem with is that they are short-staffed when it comes to mental health staffing,” Koebernick said “What we recommended was that they have access to outside care. So if somebody is in a community crisis center, they could go to a can Unity provider for assistance as well. And the department hasn’t taken any steps on that yet.”

The department did agree at the time to study the availability of mental health resources, despite then Director Scott Frakes said he didn’t believe this access was tied to walkaways.

Since that study, NDCS created a mental health clinic at CCC-L two days a week.

He also suggested reducing the size of Lincoln’s program, allowing inmates to do work release across the state and close to their homes and support systems.

In his response, Frakes rejected that change and said that while CCC-L is large, he doesn’t believe it’s size is a contributing factor to escapes. A statement from Laura Strimple, an NDCS spokeswoman said some changes have been made.

“We have posters in our community corrections facilities, encouraging people to consider the ramifications of walking away. Whenever someone is brought back to NDCS, we ensure that a staff member speaks with them, to help identify potential issues that influenced their decision,” the statement said. ‘We also do an internal review, which also involves that discussion with the inmate, to see what can be learned from the situation.”

“I think that’s a real positive that we’ve seen in that facility,” Koebernick said.

Looking just at the data, walkaways are down from 2021 when 34 people walked away. In 2020 it was 26 inmates. On average 27% of the inmates come back or are arrested within a day and Koebernick said in general they don’t commit new crimes while out.

Both Koebernick and NDCS said the risk of walkaways is worth the rewards of the program.

“Ultimately, community correctional facilities and the opportunities they offer for people to reintegrate with family members, earn wages, attend college and participate in other community programs is absolutely necessary. We have to give people those opportunities. Ninety-three percent of individuals incarcerated in NDCS will release at some point,” Strimple said.

“If you had somebody that was coming back from, let’s say, a maximum custody prison, such as Tecumseh, or the Nebraska State Penitentiary, and going right from there, to being your next door neighbor, that would cause concern for you,” Koebernick said.

NDCS adds the number that walks away is on average 2% to 3% of the facilities population, Koebernick said while it’s small NDCS should keep striving to reduce it.

“We can always do a little bit better, we shouldn’t be accepting the status quo,” Koebernick said.

When a missing inmate is found or returned there are a few potential outcomes. They can be disciplined by the Department of Corrections and removed from Community Corrections. They can also lose good time or be charged with escape. On average a walk away adds one to three years of additional time depending on the circumstance.