By all accounts, the problem of cellphones in Nebraska prisons is growing.
In 2015, prison officials said they confiscated 79 cellphones as contraband. In 2018, that number could be somewhere between 250 and 300, Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. And the number of cellphones not found would make that count higher.
The Nebraska State Penitentiary alone had at least 136 confiscated.
And those cellphones can sometimes sell for as much as $2,000 in prison, according to Nebraska Deputy Ombudsman James Davis.
Frakes and Davis were testifying on a bill (LB233), introduced by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, that would prohibit visitors, employees and anyone else from bringing cellphones into a state prison, unless the director approves cellphones for law enforcement, first responders and perhaps attorneys.
The phones are coming in with staff, visitors, in bundles thrown over perimeter fences and laundry.
Wayne wants to make bringing a cellphone into a prison a Class I misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine.
The bill would also allow confiscated cellphones to be turned over to the State Patrol to be searched for evidence of a crime.
Although it's not in the bill now, Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks would like to see an exception made for investigators from the state Ombudsman's office when they visit inmates and officers in the prisons. She wants it in the law, rather than by some informal agreement between the office and the department. Any such agreement could be rejected on a whim, she said.
The inspector general and ombudsman investigators haven't been able to take phones into the prisons to record information and take photos as they are looking into complaints and incidences for at least a year.
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"As representatives of the Legislature, you are our eyes into that, so to me that's part of understanding what's going on," Pansing Brooks told Davis.
But Wayne, who said he will continue to work on amendments to the bill, said he has concerns about the inspector general or an ombudsman allowing an inmate to make a call on a cellphone in prison to an attorney, for example, and whether that would be privileged information or a call that could be subpoenaed in a case.
The committee also heard a bill (LB113), introduced by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, that would ensure the Department of Corrections would turn over intelligence reports and reliable confidential information to the Inspector General for Corrections and deputies from the Ombudsman's office.
That information, which is submitted to the department's criminal information data base, currently is being withheld.
Deputy Ombudsman Jerall Moreland said the office has had access to confidential information and intelligence reports for many years. But in 2015 it began running into roadblocks, coincidentally about the same time a special committee was working on reform of the use of restrictive housing.
"We believe there is no reason why the ombudsman and inspector general would not have access to these materials and the department should not be allowed to hide them from us," Moreland said.
Blood said inmates who are placed in restrictive housing are supposed to be allowed to meet certain goals in order to be released back to the general population, but when they do, some are continuing to be kept in restrictive housing.
Severe problems have popped up because of the overcrowding in the general prison population, and inmates being held in restrictive housing for far too long, Blood said.
"The Department of Corrections ends up double-bunking in restrictive housing units, rooming violent offenders with nonviolent offenders, and the entire system becomes a powder keg inside a powder keg," she said.
Blood said the Legislature needs to ensure the inspector general and Ombudsman's office has every tool necessary to hold the department accountable on senators' behalf.