A long-awaited report from a national institute on prisons' solitary confinement practices released Thursday found that about 14 percent of Nebraska inmates are in some type of segregation daily. 

Half of them are in highly restricted housing. 

Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately in solitary confinement, according to the Vera Institute of Justice study, with more than 50 percent of black, Hispanic and Native American inmates spending at least some time in highly restrictive housing, compared to 39 percent of white people.

Nebraska has one of the most severely crowded prison systems in the United States, operating at almost 160 percent capacity in recent years, the Vera researchers said. Many of the problems with living conditions, access to programming and treatment, and overuse of segregation stem from overcrowding.

Many state prisoners spent long periods in solitary, especially those in protective custody, administrative confinement and intensive management, the report said.

The common definition of solitary confinement, the Vera report said, is confinement in an isolated cell (alone or with a cellmate) for an average of 22 or more hours per day, with limited human interaction or constructive activity and in an environment that ensures maximum control.

In 2015, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Vera Institute partnered with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to help reduce its use of segregation.

Vera conducted a yearlong assessment of how Nebraska uses segregation and identified opportunities for change and innovation.

During the assessment, the department began instituting dramatic reforms, the Vera researchers said, including new restrictive housing rules in July, in response to the requirements of a 2015 Nebraska law (LB598).

The rules aim to ensure segregation is used only as a last resort, in the least restrictive manner and for the least amount of time possible.

“Restrictive housing should be used to manage risk and not as punishment," said Nebraska prisons director Scott Frakes. "We will house people in the least restrictive environment that is safe for all, while providing access to mental health treatment and cognitive interventions designed to change behavior and reduce risk."

The department says it has ended the use of segregation as a disciplinary sanction for rules violations. 

But in a recent meeting of the Legislature's Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee, Jerall Moreland, with the Ombudsman's office, said segregation reform in the prisons has not reduced the numbers of inmates in segregation. In fact, it may have increased them.

The Vera report showed over a two-year period, the 3,168 people who were placed in segregation for disciplinary reasons spent an average of 44 days there over the two years. 

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Native Americans had the highest average number of days spent in disciplinary or immediate segregation at 54 days, with Hispanic inmates at 52 days and black inmates at 46 days.

The five most common charges used to justify segregation were violations of rules, possessing or receiving unauthorized articles, disobeying an order, being in unauthorized areas and being disruptive.

More than half of all charges that correctional officers filed were ultimately dismissed following a disciplinary hearing, the study showed.

The Vera researchers found that prison officials used alternative sanctions less than they could have, and that disciplinary segregation was overused, often for low-level violations.

The impetus for Nebraska prison reform was the Nikko Jenkins case, researchers said.

In 2013, Jenkins — a troubled man with mental illness, a history of self-harm and significant incarcerations, including solitary confinement — was released directly from a restrictive housing unit into the community, despite his requests for mental health treatment and transfer to a civil psychiatric facility.

Shortly after his release, Jenkins killed four people. His actions had a dramatic and lasting impact on the department and the politics of criminal justice in Nebraska, the report said.

Vera researchers had a number of recommendations, including that the department should:

* Support staff as they adjust to no longer having disciplinary segregation as a sanction, and ensure that they have adequate options to respond to misbehavior and incentives for positive behavior

* Ensure staff does not overuse immediate segregation in the place of disciplinary confinement

* Enact firm policies to prohibit placing youth, pregnant women and people with serious mental illness in any form of restrictive housing that limits social interaction, exercise, environmental stimulation and therapeutic programming

* Increase out-of-cell time and recreation, minimize isolation and idleness, and provide opportunities for rehabilitative programming.

Vera will join the Long-Term Restrictive Housing Workgroup meeting Nov. 16 to discuss the recommendations and assist in developing additional strategies to reduce the use of restrictive housing, Frakes said. 

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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