The vicious circle plaguing Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons
For more than twenty years, Nebraska has been extending its prisons far beyond their capacity. As the fourth most-crowded state prison system in the country, Nebraska houses 5,263 inmates in a space meant for 3,375.
While the state reconsiders how, why and whom it incarcerates, both taxpayers and prisoners face the consequences of the unfair and ineffective system.
The prison population continues increasing without proportional accommodations in infrastructure, medical resources, and staffing. The 59 percent of the corrections officers who quit their jobs last year caused a staffing crisis that has worsened the safety and living conditions in county jails.
The crisis has contributed to the overuse of old practices like solitary confinement. Despite jeopardizing their health, it is often used to isolate detainees during the pre-trial or to lock away prisoners who are mentally ill or difficult to control. While Nebraska’s prison system has made efforts to reduce this practice, the lack of staff and accommodations contribute to the 13.9 percent of Nebraska’s prisoners left in solitary confinement every day.
The lack of accommodations also endangers prisoners who are blind, deaf or have other disabilities.
ACLU attorney Rose Godinez expressed her concern on the several human rights violations in Nebraska prisons during a UNL panel discussion about human rights abuses in the state.
“There was a case of a deaf individual who was arrested and wanted to request an attorney but the facility didn’t have a sign language interpreter,” she said. “The individual stayed incarcerated until his boss called and helped him get out of jail.”
Nebraska Appleseed legal director Robert McEwen said advocacy organizations are constantly prompting lawmakers to pursue legislative changes to reduce overcrowding, a problem that not only affects current inmates but targets minorities and low-income Nebraskans disproportionally.
“All of the institutions we work in have racial disparities,” he said during the panel. “But it is not something the judge can wave his finger at and solve the problem; it’s about transforming the system.”
Black Americans have long outnumbered whites in U.S. prisons and Nebraska is not the exemption. The state has the 11th highest racial disparity of black and white individuals’ incarceration rates. In 2015, 28 percent of the prison population was black, when only 5 percent of Nebraskans were black.
Income contributes to disparities as well. Old practices like money bond jails low-income Nebraskans because they cannot afford bail.
Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro told the ACLU of Nebraska Director Danielle Conrad during an interview that the system is not ensuring that those who are in jail are those who have committed a crime rather than those who simply don’t have the money to leave.
“These are people who are presumed innocent,” he said. “Over 60 percent of the people in our county jail are trial detainees.”
Money bond contributes to overcrowding and creates extra costs for taxpayers.
“In one year, Lancaster county spent 5 and a 1/2 million dollars on people sitting out fines,” Nigro said. “Those are not people who are dangerous to the community. They were fined. That’s an incredible expenditure.”
While the immediate concern is to free people who remain in jail because they’re poor, the state also needs better alternatives to rehabilitate the inmate population. Low-income detainees face several barriers to re-entry into society, barriers that often lead to re-incarceration.
“The problem is that If you end up going to prison, you will have a felony in your record,” McEwen said. “If you want to get an apartment, have kids, get a job, that’s very difficult to do as a former felon.”
All of these broken aspects of Nebraska’s prison system generate a vicious circle where money often decides who stays in jail and who gets back into it, fueling the overcrowding and unsafety conditions in prisons.
“There is not an easy solution for any of those issues, but I can guarantee that what we are doing right now is not working so good,” McEwen said. “The system is stuck with those trying to get out of it.”