David Ditter, a man serving a life sentence for first-degree murder at the maximum-security prison in Tecumseh, sent Gov. Dave Heineman a letter Oct. 23 implying the warden there is depriving him of basic human necessities.
Ditter, who’s been locked up for 42 years, and 951 other inmates at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution went on “modified lockdown” five weeks ago after a series of fights.
The state's other maximum-security prisons -- the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Correctional Youth Facility -- also are clamping down on what inmates can do and when they can do it.
“There is a fundamental difference between depriving a prisoner of privileges he may enjoy and depriving him of the basic necessities of human existence," Ditter said in his letter to Heineman.
“While prison administrators may punish, they may not do so in a manner that threatens the physical and mental health of the prisoners.”
But state Corrections Director Bob Houston said that even during the four days the lockdown was at its most restrictive at Tecumseh, all inmates had access to basic necessities: food, visitation, access to clergy.
The change is an effort to protect both inmates and guards, he said, and wardens and corrections officials are trying to give prisoners as much access to programs as possible.
The state’s maximum-security prisons saw an increase in violence over the past year fueled by gangs, he said. Not only did the number of fights go up, the fights were more violent and involved more inmates.
What used to be a face-off between two inmates now involves several people tied together by gang affiliation. And once a scuffle ends, fellow gang members keep the feud at a simmer, waiting to retaliate.
When the yard at, say, the penitentiary is packed with more than 1,000 inmates, there’s the potential a two-man fight can explode into a riot in a hurry, Houston said.
“The nature is changing, not just in frequency but in the retaliation that often follows,” he said.
The penitentiary and Tecumseh have been on modified lockdown since August and September, respectively. Wardens there are trying to set up a final schedule for yard access, which already has happened at the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Correctional Youth Facility.
Under the new rules, inmates are allowed on the yard for a fraction of the time they used to be, and only at the same time as those who live in the same housing unit. At the penitentiary, that means some 140 prisoners out at any given time, compared to upward of 1,000.
“It’s just human dynamics,” Houston said. “You get a conflict out into an open area and with a lot of individuals, it changes the dynamics and it exacerbates that.”
He and Ditter agree on a couple of points: Most prisoners behave well and respect prison staff, and the new restrictions are aimed at a sliver of inmates.
"Most inmates are very responsible citizens," Houston said. "They go about their job each day. They communicate honestly and openly with our staff, and it's unfortunate that the actions of a few affects the freedom of the many."
In Nebraska, the penitentiary was designed to hold 718 men but has 1,268, and the Lincoln Correctional Center has nearly 500 in a space designed for 308, according to data from the state Department of Correctional Services. Tecumseh and the Correctional Youth Facility are at or close to capacity.
"It's easier to keep inmates in cells 23 hours a day than balance programming needed for 1,100 inmates in an overcrowded prison," inmate Jose Rodriguez said in an Aug. 30 letter to the Journal Star. Rodriguez, 40, is serving 40 to 50 years at the penitentiary for sexual assault and false imprisonment.
The move to scheduled yard time is not about prison overcrowding, said Dawn Renee Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Correctional Services. And, she said, Rodriguez is wrong; inmates were never confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and were allowed out for meals, showers, visits and phone calls.
Houston said restricting access to the yard is about one thing: safety.
Julie Drake Abel, executive director of the union that represents the state's prison guards, lauded the department for making changes she thinks will protect both inmates and their handlers.
"The department is trying to make this situation better for everybody," she said.
Prison officials hope to continue to loosen restrictions as they figure out the nuts and bolts of new yard schedules and find out which inmates are going to cause trouble, Houston said.
“Just because they have access to the things they need doesn’t mean we didn’t want to give them greater access and improve the quality of their lives,” Houston said.
Inmates in Nebraska’s maximum-security prisons seem to have a better quality of life than many of their counterparts across the country, said Benjamin Steiner, assistant criminology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Even inmates in lower security facilities elsewhere don’t have unrestricted access to the yard, he said.
“I was kinda surprised that they had as much movement as they did,” he said. “That’s really rare.”
The U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts have supported far greater restrictions to inmate freedom, he said. In some cases, inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells and get one hour -- alone -- out in the yard, which in some prisons amounts to a larger cell.
Still, Steiner said he understands why inmates like Ditter and Rodriguez are frustrated.
“I sympathize, no doubt,” he said. “It’s hard to tell an inmate he’s lucky because there’s nothing good about prison, but I think Nebraska might be a little bit better state to be confined in than other places I’ve seen firsthand.”