ACLU of Nebraska files lawsuit over state prisons

Posted at 8:10 AM, Aug 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-16 20:26:21-04

The ACLU of Nebraska filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning, saying "extreme" prison overcrowding in the state's system are causing unsafe conditions for staff and "needless death and suffering" for inmates.

The lawsuit also mentions inmates with disabilities or mental health problems are especially vulnerable to some of the Nebraska prison system's practices, including long periods of solitary confinement and shackling.

Gov. Pete Ricketts responded, saying "all three branches of state government have made justice reinvestment and corrections reform a top priority."

The ACLU officials interviewed dozens of inmates who had complained about prison conditions and selected 11 of them for the lawsuit after their medical records were evaluated by medical professionals.

As for the overcrowding, according to the most recent information on the state website, the prisons are at 159.6 percent of capacity. A state of emergency can be declared once prisons reach 140 percent of capacity and Danielle Conrad, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the state should do so immediately. 

The lawsuit also said there were problems that specifically impacted black Nebraskans. 

"The horrendous conditions — as well as the lack of programing and diversion for substance abuse issues–impact Black Nebraskans disproportionately: in 2015, 28% of the prison population was Black, when only 5% of Nebraskans were Black," a release from the ACLU said. "A black person in Nebraska is 4.65 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white Nebraskan. The groups say that adding diversion services for those with substance abuse issues could play a role in reducing these disparities."

The lawsuit, which was filed in conjunction with Nebraska Appleseed, the National Prison Project and the National Association for the Deaf, names several organizations involved in Nebraska's prison system as defendants, including the Department of Correctional Services and the Nebraska Board of Parole. The suit also specifically names Correctional Services director Scott Frakes. 

The plaintiffs in the case sent Governor Pete Rickets a comprehensive letter on April 10, 2017, regarding the problems of the prison system and the allegations in the lawsuit. 

“We cannot wait any longer for the actions needed to address the systemic failures of Nebraska’s prison system,” Nebraska Appleseed Executive Director Becky Gould said. “Daily, people are going without adequate health care and necessary treatment, as well as dealing with the other side effects of a system that for the last decade has continued to swell well beyond its intended capacity. This case is not only about protecting the constitutional rights of Nebraskans in our prisons, but ensuring urgent action to restore a safe and effective corrections system that benefits our entire community.”

The governor's full statement, issued Wednesday afternoon, read:

“Over the past few years, all three branches of state government have made justice reinvestment and Corrections reform a top priority. Together, we have invested millions of taxpayer dollars to protect public safety and expand state prisons. This litigation from the ACLU threatens public safety by seeking the early release of dangerous criminals and could endanger our Corrections officers by further limiting the tools they have to manage the inmate population.”