Lawmakers pass inmate confinement reform

Senators passed a bill May 21 that revises inmate confinement policies for Nebraska’s prisons.

Introduced by Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, LB598 requires the state Department of Correctional Services, beginning July 1, 2016, to use the least restrictive manner consistent with maintaining institutional order when separating inmates from the general prison population.

The bill permits restrictive housing, defined in the measure as housing that provides limited contact with other inmates and limited out-of-cell time. LB598 prohibits solitary confinement which, as defined in the bill, deprives an inmate of all visual and auditory contact with other inmates.

Schumacher said hearings conducted in 2014 by a special investigative committee revealed that a lack of regulations regarding solitary confinement led to Nikko Jenkins being isolated for more than half of his incarceration. Testimony showed that Jenkins’ time in segregation likely did psychological damage and contributed to him killing four people in Omaha following his release from the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 2013, Schumacher said.

The bill requires the department director to submit a report to the governor and the Legislature that outlines a long-term plan for the use and reduction of restrictive housing.

Due by July 1, 2016, the report will include the behavior, conditions and mental health status under which an inmate will be placed in each confinement level and regulations for transitioning inmates back to the general prison population or to society.

Additionally, the director is required to report annually by Sept. 15 to the governor and the Legislature:
• the number of inmates in restrictive housing;
• reasons for separation from the general population;
• whether those inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness;
• the number of inmates released from restrictive housing directly to parole or the community;
• the number of inmates placed in restrictive housing for their own safety;
• the length of time held in restrictive housing; and
• comparable statistics for the nation and each of Nebraska’s bordering states pertaining to restrictive housing.

LB598 also creates a long-term restrictive housing work group, consisting of the department director and other department officials, mental health professionals and prisoners’ rights advocates appointed by the governor. The group is required to meet no later than Sept. 15, 2015, and at least semiannually thereafter and will advise the department on treatment and care of offenders in long-term restrictive housing.

Provisions of LB606, introduced by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, create the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. The inspector general will be appointed and supervised by the Office of Public Counsel and serve a five-year term.

Duties of the inspector general will include conducting investigations of misconduct and death or serious injuries, audits, inspections and other reviews of the Nebraska correctional system. The inspector is required to provide a summary of all reports and investigations to the Judiciary Committee and governor by Sept. 15 each year.

Provisions of LB606 also require the governor, beginning July 1, 2020, to declare an overcrowding emergency when the director of correctional services certifies that the prison population is over 140 percent of design capacity. Declaration of an overcrowding emergency mandates that the state Parole Board immediately consider or reconsider all eligible inmates for parole.

Currently, the governor has the option whether or not to declare an emergency when the population reaches the 140 percent threshold.

Incorporated provisions of LB592, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, require the department to administer a mental health evaluation of all inmates within the first two weeks of their incarceration. The department is required to treat mentally ill inmates and re-evaluate them prior to release.

The chief executive officer of a correctional facility is now authorized to segregate or transfer mentally ill and dangerous inmates to a psychiatric facility outside of the department. Additionally, the department’s Parole Administration Office will be within the state Board of Parole beginning July 1, 2016.

Senators passed LB598 on a 47-0 vote.

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