Nearly 800 Nebraska inmates sign petition panning prison conditions

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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN)-- More than half of the population of the Nebraska State Penitentiary recently signed a petition outlining concerning conditions at the facility, leading a Nebraska agency to take notice.

Carl Eskridge of the Nebraska Ombudsman’s Office said that the petition, which was signed by 780 inmates and sent to multiple state agencies, describes what they believe are unfair conditions while the penitentiary has been in modified operations due to staffing issues.

A staffing emergency was declared at the State Penitentiary by the Nebraska Department of Corrections when workers were switched from 8-hour to 12-hour days on Oct. 28, leading to the modified operations.

Eskridge said his office, which is a “complaint-driven department” of the state government, receives petitions roughly once a year, but the 780 signatures are the most he can remember on a single petition and was more than enough to raise concern.

"The State Ombudsman and the Inspector General for Corrections are taking the issues raised in the inmates' petition seriously, and are working with the Department to address their concerns during the modified lockdown," Eskridge said.

Eskridge told 1011 NOW that during the modified operations, prison operations shut down at 6 p.m. This limits the amount of programs inmates have access to, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and religious organizations.

The modified operations is also restricting the access inmates have to the recreational area of the facility, Eskridge said, as well as access to the law library.

Limited access to the library presents issues for inmates facing appeals or who are in need of legal expertise, according to Eskridge.

Since operations at NSP are shutting down early, inmates also do not have access to the cafeteria for breakfast in the morning. This means inmates are receiving a bagged breakfast when they are placed into their cell at 6 p.m. the night before.

Eskridge said the petition outlines numerous complaints of smashed and cold breakfasts.

However, the head of the Ombudsman’s office said he hopes to meet with Frakes in the coming days to discuss the petition and the timeline of the modified operations.

On Dec. 4, Tecumseh State Correctional Institution will also switch from 8 to 12-hour workdays.

While the petition was signed only by inmates at NSP, Eskridge said with similar operations going into effect in Tecumseh, what is happening at the State Penitentiary is important to consider when evaluating other facilities.

Nebraska Department of Corrections Director Scott Frakes released the following statement:

“Any petitions submitted by inmates must follow the specific protocol outlined in Title 68 of the Nebraska Administrative Code. The reason for those steps is to ensure that there is uniform and fair process for handling all petitions. The petition filed by inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary was not filed properly and to accept it would violate approved standards. As such, it will not receive an official response. Issues raised in the document will be reviewed. If the petition is properly resubmitted, it will be processed appropriately.”

NDCS classifies Modified Operations as "actions taken to more closely control movement of inmates within a facility due to safety and security needs. Can include confinement in cells of a portion of the inmate population, cancellation of program/work activities, and direct escort of certain inmates — as determined by the warden/designee."