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"Every day I think my brain gets worse in this cell. My hope is going thin. ... I really want help Mom. Because I really feel like there might not be any left for me. ... I'm upset with myself and the sad thing is I have to live with myself in a cell 24/7 all day only thoughts race and nothing else."

***

Austin Bower slogged through every day of his prison time. Hours stacked on hours were filled with fear then defiance, pleading then door pounding, hateful insults, assaults.

He spent three years and seven months of onerous time there, in a place where a 22-year-old man with disabilities -- a "unique cookie" someone once called him -- could not hope to adjust.

In letters home and to District Court Judge Paul Merritt Jr., he described incidents in which he was bullied, abused and provoked by inmates and staff.

Before 2011, when he was sentenced to prison, he had spent a couple of decades defined by aggressive outbursts, learning problems, threatening behaviors, social anxiety, tics, suicide threats and attempts. 

Through those years he had been diagnosed with one thing and then another by a list of doctors and psychologists. Autism, Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, oppositional defiant disorder, borderline personality disorder. 

His disabilities most likely resulted from complications of pregnancy, said his mother, Brendamae Stinson. 

The Social Security Administration defined him as disabled.

And now, after more than four years spent locked up, add post traumatic stress disorder.

His prison sentence could have been predicted, given his disabilities, his vulnerability to the influence of peers, and his list of petty crimes beginning at age 18.

Even so, many would say he didn’t belong there, including the judge who sentenced him.

***

"I'm scared and worried I am going to be alone on my birthday, August 9th. I will be 23 years old. Your honor, do you think I'm fat because the guy next door to me calls me obsessed and says I'm a fat a--. That hurts my feelings." 

***

Shortly after his graduation from Lincoln Southeast High School in 2009, two months before his 21st birthday, Austin admitted to police he went with Charles Eagleboy, a then 33-year-old man with a long list of convictions including manslaughter, to kick down a door, bust up a surveillance camera, enter a residence and rob a man of $103.

While on probation, Austin continued to use drugs and alcohol and commit other petty offenses.

“I didn’t really know where I fit in in life, and didn’t know where my future was headed. And that’s when I started hanging around with just the bad crowd, and all of a sudden that led to a worse crowd, and to just a corrupt crowd. … You let the vampire in, the vampire ain’t going to leave.”

He found himself back in court in front of Judge Merritt, telling him he was sorry, that the apartment he lived in at 14th and D streets was a bad place for him, that if he could remain on probation he would stay away from people who were a bad influence. 

Austin's attorney Norman Langemach told Merritt: "The options are pretty well running out, and I don't have anything else that I can suggest."

He needed what was not available to him: long-term dual diagnosis treatment in a facility that would keep him isolated from the people who could take advantage of him. CenterPointe was such a program, Langemach said. But CenterPointe indicated Austin would not qualify for that particular program at that time.

"You know and I know you have special needs," the judge told Austin, "but I also know you know what's right and wrong.  

"With your special needs and then under the influence of drugs, that just makes you that much more usable, if you will, by somebody else."

Probation wasn’t working. And so Merritt sentenced him to prison, “no part of which shall be in solitary confinement, except for violation of prison rules.”

His prison sentence started March 8, 2011. By April 1, he was pleading with prison staff for protective custody.

"I fear for my life,” he told them.

***

“Mom, I need your help so much!! I am so scared I can barlie write. Last night Saturday night I come to seggergation for protection from A-unit. The C.O. and staff put me in a cell, C2. Lower. 7. Now just so you know this. The cell mattress smelt like suage like s--- from a tolit.” 

***

When his mother heard her son's prison sentence a bomb went off in her head. She has teetered on the edge of tears ever since.

How could he survive? Her boy, with his kind heart, who couldn't tolerate as he grew up to be interrupted by the smallest noise in the house when he was tying his shoes?  

She would get letters from him every week, like one in which he told her if he died she should do this for his funeral: Play the song "Sweet Child O' Mine," speak with no time limit, serve Dr Pepper and his brother's famous chicken enchiladas. 

And another letter with a list of 20 inmates he said had hit, kicked, stomped, teased, threatened and stolen from him. Another list of corrections officers and caseworkers he said lied to him, called him names, provoked him, insulted his mom. 

She would clearly hear on a telephone conversation from prison another inmate say to him: Kill yourself, Austin. Kill yourself.

It broke her heart that his pleas for relief would be beyond her reach. 

***

Austin spent more than four years in prison or jail on some level of segregation, assessed to be at a high risk of suicide, a moderate risk of violence toward other inmates, and at a high potential to be a victim.

When he threatened suicide, he was stripped down and put on 24-hour watches. He pounded on his cell door and, he said, was locked in five-point restraints, for days, longer than allowed. 

He was turned down for parole three times because he didn’t get needed programming. They wanted him to go through a substance abuse program, which he tried to do without success.

After the third try, he gave up. “I’m like nah, man, I don’t even want your parole cause all you’re going to do is keep me on a leash for six months. You’re going to watch me, and if I even make one mess up ... you guys will lock me up for it.”

He discharged from the hole. And he brought his prison home, the after-effects of withering confinement still felt not just by him, but by his mother and older and younger siblings.

“I live in my own hell, still," he said. "I’ll be in one world, but locked up in another in my mind.”

***

A loud noise, like the slamming of prison doors, brings Austin back to lockup. Jangling keys means a guard must be outside the door and leads to arguments and outbursts. He doesn't trust. He fears running into prison personnel at the grocery store, church or YMCA.

Ask his mother how it has been since her son left the Lincoln Correctional Center, and there is more than a full minute of silence, her trying to compose herself enough to talk. 

"It's been hell, just to see the result of what the guards had done to my son, the institution itself, the system."

The excuse of administrators was that they do their best to train individuals properly, but there are some bad seeds, and they can't weed all of them out, Stinson said. 

“But who," she asks, "puts someone in a cage naked on a cement slab and makes them eat and sleep like that when they’re suicidal?”

On top of everything else, her second-born son now has severe panic attacks.

She has learned to just listen, and not offer her thoughts.

Saying “I think,” reminds him of what he heard in encounters with guards: I think you’d better shut up. I think you’re a piece of s---.

“If they could only see what they’ve done to Austin, I think maybe they would rethink how they would treat people,” she said.

“No they wouldn’t, Mom," Austin answers. "They wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t.”

***

Everyone who had contact with Austin recognized he had special needs the prison simply did not have the capacity to address, said Gary Weiss, former Nebraska assistant ombudsman who worked with the family. 

His high emotional needs could be wearing on people who did not understand them -- and even those who did.

The state, in general, does not have services for people with special needs who break the law, Weiss said.

It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail, famed psychologist Abraham Maslow said.

"But that hammer's crushing these folks, just crushing them," Weiss said. "The one-size-fits-all deal that prisons have is just a complete disaster.

Those inmates are going to end up doing some really antisocial things when they get out, he said. It's harmful to public safety.

Two years removed from his job at the Capitol, Weiss sees how dangerous the prison system is for people with disabilities and mental illness. They come out of there not knowing how to get a job, how to raise kids.

"The criminal justice system, the prison system, is destroying communities," he said.

***

For a long time, the prison system did not question the use of long-term segregation, said Nebraska Ombudsman Marshall Lux. They now are starting to do so.

Nebraska’s new Corrections director Scott Frakes has made it an issue. While he couldn't address Austin's case specifically, he said, the department continues in its efforts to identify and address specific needs of inmates, and to expand secure mental health housing for inmates at Lincoln Correctional Center.

"The expectation of staff is that the inmate's behavior should not impact the staff member's professionalism," he said.

Nebraska is one of five states selected to get assistance from The Vera Institute of Justice to analyze its use of segregation for inmates, and make recommendations.

Segregation is supposed to isolate inmates who are deemed threats, but Nebraska has increasingly used it to punish inmates, protect the vulnerable or temporarily house those who are awaiting transfer. 

A law (LB598) passed in this year’s legislative session requires the department to come up with new rules and regulations for segregation.

Mentally ill inmates should be in a mental health unit, Lux said. But fewer than 150 mental health beds at the Lincoln Correctional Center aren’t enough to handle all those who need them, he said.

***

A tort claim Austin filed with the state, charging emotional, psychological, sexual, physical and spiritual abuse, and asking for $2.1 million for every year he was in isolation, was turned down by the state claims board in June.

It is really hard, he told the board, for a person with autism, to be in isolation and to undergo abuse.

People might say, he understands, that that’s what happens when you violate the law.

“But when did it become morally right for a government to be above the law and to be above itself?”

***

Austin decided he could not stay in Nebraska, with all those reminders and without good services. 

So with his mother, he found a city on the West Coast, in a state that was friendlier to people with autism and where he could receive respectful rehabilitation. He left Lincoln in late June.

He is getting services there; he feels protected. 

But he is still struggling socially, he said. He feels frustrated or aggressive at times, has flashbacks and spends sleepless nights. 

"I'm as happy as I can be, and yet still in pain," he said. "I look in my hall closet every time I wake out of sleep to be sure no one is hiding. I look behind my door when I enter my home to be sure I won't be sucker punched." 

He never wants to return.

"I would really like to know how Judge Merritt would feel knowing how his decision impacted my son's life and our family's," Stinson said.

The only thing Austin needed was a loving family, which he had, and services that would assist him and protect him from predators, she said. Instead, he was placed in a toxic pool of predators.

"Sending him to prison was the easy way out."

 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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