Air still smells of soot at damaged Nebraska prison

AP News
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Posted: May 19, 2015 7:26 PM
Air still smells of soot at damaged Nebraska prison

TECUMSEH, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts on Tuesday toured a prison for the first time since an inmate revolt caused up to $500,000 damage, with officials showing him a shattered door to a gymnasium, charred remains of a plaster and wood wall, and trash strewn on a housing unit floor from the May 10 disturbance that left two sex offenders dead.

The air still smelled of soot at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution nine days after prisoners took over two of its housing units. Fearing for her safety, one female staff member resorted to barricading herself in an office with a desk in front of the door during the 11-hour ordeal, officials said.

The maximum security facility is on what officials call "modified lockdown," — no visitors and only 50 of the 960 prisoners allowed out of their cells to perform prison jobs. Some 64 inmates who have been crammed three-to-a-cell with cots to sleep on will be allowed back to cells in the next 48 hours, officials said.

Nine staff have quit since the revolt, adding to the 40 security positions already unfilled, according to Warden Brian Gage, who gave Ricketts and some media the tour. Officials said the facility is supposed to have just over 300 security staff including guards and case workers but has only 264 now.

The rural location 70 miles south of Omaha makes it difficult to retain experienced staff, Gage said.

"When there's opportunity, they transfer to another facility that is closer to home," he said.

The revolt began when officers confronted an inmate who was in the yard but was supposed to be on room restriction, and the prisoner refused to cooperate. Officials did not explain how the prisoner was allowed into the yard by mistake. The tension escalated, and staff issued a "get down" command, Gage said.

"All inmates were supposed to get down on the ground, if they don't get down, they're considered part of the disturbance," he said.

One inmate was shot in the leg, another was shot with a rubber bullet, and two staff members were assaulted. The two deaths were likely from other inmates, the department said. The autopsy results have not been released.

The facility sustained between $350,000 and $500,000 in damage and insurance will cover the majority of costs, although a temporary wall burned down by prisoners will not be covered by insurance. The State Patrol and an incident review team are investigating the uprising, murders and staff response.

Gage said the prison was fully staffed at the time of the incident but some of those people were working extra or double shifts, which is a problem throughout the overcrowded Nebraska prison system.

The corrections department spent $5.7 million on overtime in 2014 alone, up from and $4.3 million in 2013 and $3.3 million in 2012.

During the tour, Ricketts said he opposes efforts in the Legislature to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing. Critics say mandatory sentences are one of the reasons the state's prison system is at about 160 percent of design capacity. The Republican governor also repeated his support for the death penalty, which the Legislature is moving to repeal this session. Nebraska's 11 death row inmates are held at Tecumseh.

"My reaction to seeing the damage inside only reinforces that these are dangerous, hardened criminals inside this facility," Ricketts said. "We need to have facilities like this to protect public safety and we need to have strong laws to protect public safety as well."