By Chris Kenning
(Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Nebraska state prison system on Wednesday to remedy what it says is overcrowding that has fueled riots, assaults and created unconstitutional conditions for prisoners.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, Nebraska, on behalf of prisoners, asks a federal judge to order the state to fix problems including the overuse of solitary confinement and neglect of medical, disability and mental health needs.
"For over twenty years, Nebraska state prisons have been overcrowded, under-resourced, and understaffed. The result is a dangerous system in perpetual crisis," the lawsuit said.
Officials with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, named in the suit along with the Board of Parole, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republican Governor Pete Ricketts said in a statement that prison reform was already under way and the state had invested millions to expand corrections facilities.
"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," he said.
But the ACLU alleges officials have failed to take sufficient action.
A similar lawsuit in California led to a 2011 court ruling that officials said eventually reduced its prison population by 30,000 inmates. (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-prison-budget-insight-idUSKBN0UK0J520160106)
The Nebraska lawsuit also comes as various states are seeking to reduce prison populations through sentencing reforms and other measures, said James Austin, head of the JFA Institute in California, a corrections research and policy organization.
In Nebraska, the ACLU said the prison system is at 159 percent of capacity and that it has been at overcapacity for more than two decades. There are currently 5,228 inmates housed in a system meant for 3,275.
The lawsuit lists numerous problems, including allegations that inmates with disabilities or medical needs do not receive adequate care. It said the system's shortcomings created dangerous conditions.
In March, after a melee at a maximum-security prison in which two inmates were killed, Corrections director Scott Frakes said increased use of parole was easing overcrowding, but that reforms were slowed by problems including high levels of inmate violence and staff shortages.
The suit asks a judge to order reductions in prison population, increases in trained correctional staff, better policies to classify and house prisoners, and new procedures for screening their healthcare needs.
(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Matthew Lewis)