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Corrections to stop inmate driving program indefinitely

Corrections to stop inmate driving program indefinitely

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State prison officials scrapped their inmate driving program on Friday, but prisoners on work release still will drive their own cars to and from their jobs.

The move comes a week and a half after inmate Jeremy Dobbe crashed a state van into a minivan, killing Joyce R. Meeks.

Dobbe, who started driving inmates from the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln to their jobs and back in April, has a history of driving offenses including two DUIs and two reckless driving convictions.

Prison officials looked at revamping the program instead of ending it after the accident, Department of Correctional Services Director Bob Houston said, but Meeks' death made it clear the program cannot work.

Work release is a pivotal part of making a transition from prison to life on the outside, he said, but three-quarters of all Nebraska inmates struggle with alcohol or drug abuse and officials realize they will not find one the general public thinks is OK to drive a state-owned vehicle on public streets.

“Can we improve the policy? Can we improve the pool of inmates who are driving?” he asked. “We can’t do it. It’s just not going to happen.

“This tragedy and the devastation to the Meeks family requires better of us."

Prisoners started driving their peers to work in 1985. Since 2009, they have been in 16 accidents, three involving injury, according to Corrections Department data.

But in half of those wrecks inmates were driving on state property, and that practice will continue, Houston said.

The director was vacationing out of the country when the Dobbe hit Meeks' van near 18th and Van Dorn streets about 10:30 at night, and he returned to Lincoln on Wednesday. While he was gone, state prison officials were nearly silent on the accident and its aftermath.

"I am as concerned as you with getting answers to the specifics of the events that occurred on June 25," he said Friday.

Prison officials gave the public as much information as they can, Houston said, citing the Lincoln Police Department’s ongoing investigation and the possibility of lawsuits.

Prison staff will drive inmates to their jobs like they did before 1985, Houston said. Paying for eight employees to drive them around will cost $320,000 a year and require administrators to comb through budgets to scrounge up extra cash.

“There is no new money,” Houston said, but added that the six-figure price tag “pales in comparison” to Meeks’ death.

Houston said he doesn’t know why his predecessors started letting inmates drive state vans 28 years ago, but the program continued because it saved money and staff time.

He said ending it won't affect inmates' re-entry into the community.

"The primary mission of our department is public safety," he said. "Re-entry is a key element to public safety, as the majority of inmates will return to their communities within three years of admission.”

Inmates still will drive their personal vehicles to and from their jobs, Houston added.

Reach Jonathan Edwards at 402-473-7395 or jedwards@journalstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/LJSedwards.

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