The lawsuit filed Wednesday morning by the American Civil Liberties Union regarding conditions and overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons should come as no surprise.
The concept behind the suit is far from new. Overcrowding and understaffing have long plagued Nebraska’s penal system, and the Journal Star editorial board has for years called upon state officials to address the health and safety concerns of incarcerated Nebraskans.
What is new is the level of detail in the allegations, including the lack of accommodations for those with disabilities and statistics highlighting the scope and extent of overcrowding and use of isolation that are among the highest in the nation.
Most importantly, the 84-page filing indicates what we’ve come to expect from Nebraska’s prisons is not normal. With litigation against the Department of Correctional Services, Nebraska Board of Parole and three officials in those departments now officially pending, the state must swiftly take overdue action to improve the conditions in its facilities.
State and federal data indicate Nebraska prisons are at 159 percent of their designed capacity. They have zero psychiatrists currently on staff and battle ever-increasing staff turnover. The suit alleges they resort to segregation more frequently and on more inmates than recommended. Federal stats show a prisoner suicide rate nearly 30 percent higher than the national average.
This is not normal. But, sadly, it has become so in Nebraska prisons.
Prisoners may not be a politically expedient group to appease, seeing as felons don’t have the right to vote for two years after their release and are invisible to most voters. But they are Nebraskans and Americans nonetheless – and didn’t lose their rights as such by entering prison.
Yet, in a statement released Wednesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts said the lawsuit “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.”
Prisoners aren’t there to be managed, simply held until their release. These men and women in the corrections system need adequate care and resources if they hope to be rehabilitated for re-entry into society – hence the use of the word “corrections” – as nearly all will one day be eligible to leave.
Accordingly, it’s in the best interest of the state and its taxpayers to ensure inmates leaving state prisons and reintegrating into Nebraska are healthy, functioning, contributing citizens. The more of them who hold jobs and pay taxes helps reduce the financial burden of support paid by all Nebraskans.
For decades, Nebraska’s prison system has been in disrepair. After years of inadequate investment and inmate care, the status quo cannot continue – and must see dramatic improvement after the introduction of this lawsuit.