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Solitary confinement work group provides input on segregation rules
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Solitary confinement work group provides input on segregation rules

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A consulting group on solitary confinement in Nebraska prisons on Wednesday hashed over a set of rules for restricted housing of inmates. 

But before it did, Corrections Director Scott Frakes told the group he was disappointed that state Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus felt the state Department of Correctional Services did not consider input from the work group when developing the rules and regulations required by state law.

Schumacher said earlier this week he didn't think the work group had given its input before the Corrections Department wrote the rules.

"If that's the case, then clearly I've failed to do what I was supposed to do in terms of having this work group be an effective working group," said Frakes, who heads the consulting group. "So help me make this work group be more effective. What needs to change ... so people feel like they're heard?" 

The Legislature created the work group and loaded it with mostly prison officials. 

It includes Frakes and deputy directors from the Corrections Department, health and behavioral health administrators and prison employees, as well as four members appointed by the governor. It gathered Wednesday to discuss feedback from a Monday hearing on the rules developed by the department and set to take effect July 1.

Deputy Ombudsman James Davis said he also had not seen input on the rules coming from the work group, although the Ombudsman's office did meet separately with prison officials to offer its own input. 

A member of the work group, Kasey Moyer of the nonprofit Mental Health Association of Nebraska, said she did not feel comfortable, as one who is just learning about the intricacies of the prisons, offering her input on the process to more experienced Corrections Department officials.

"I feel like I need the information before I go talking about restrictive housing," she said. "It's a huge learning curve."  

Frakes said it's a daunting process, even for him with 32 years of corrections experience, to learn terminology, acronyms, how things fit together and interact with each other.  

Diane Sabatka-Rine, deputy director of institutions for the Nebraska department, said she felt the group has not been stifled in any way. But working through these changes is complicated, even for those who have worked for the agency for years.

"We're conditioned to how we've done business for years and years," she said. "And this is a different way of managing some challenging inmates." 

The requirement for the creation of rules for restrictive housing, and the consulting group, were created by Schumacher's bill (LB598), passed in 2015.

The Corrections Department developed the rules and regulations after a state law (LB598) was passed in 2015. The law introduced by Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus requires a long-term plan for use and reduction of restrictive housing.

It requires that inmates be segregated in the least restrictive manner for the least amount of time, taking into consideration the safety and security of staff, inmates and the prison.

Restrictive housing is supposed to be the alternative of last resort.

Doug Koebernick, inspector general for the Nebraska correctional system, isn't a member of the work group but attends its meeting and said the group did not have all the information it needed.

It would have been helpful to see a report done by the Vera Institute of Justice for Nebraska on its Safe Alternatives to Segregation initiative, he said.

It would also have been helpful for the group to have had access to department data on segregation, Koebernick said. 

"I know it's an archaic system, but if we're going to change the way we handle restrictive housing, then data should be available so we can determine which direction we go in, rather than just trying to guess," he said. 

Frakes said Nebraska approached segregation reform backward, compared with other states, before the necessary data was available. 

After the discussion, the work group spent about 2½ hours talking about details of the rules and regulations and input from the hearing. 

Several times, Frakes said the department would take into consideration suggestions on such items as due process and appeals for inmates; out-of-cell time; segregation of juveniles, older inmates, seriously mentally ill inmates and pregnant inmates; double bunking in segregation units; long-term segregation and management of more challenging inmates. 

An annual report is required to go to the governor and the Legislature from the department with data on how many inmates were held in restrictive housing for that year, reasons for the segregation, and details about those inmates. That report is due Sept. 15.

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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