After a harrowing night that left two prison inmates dead, at least two inmates and two guards injured, and a prison employee rescued after she barricaded herself in a gym, prison officials said everything was under control on Monday.
"All inmates are accounted for and the public is safe," new state Corrections Director Scott Frakes said at a Monday morning news conference in Lincoln. "Staff members continue to manage the facility."
Officials released the names of the two inmates found dead Monday morning in a housing unit at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution: Donald Peacock and Shon Collins, both 46 and both serving long prison sentences for sexually assaulting children.
The Nebraska State Patrol is investigating their deaths, which Frakes said appear to have come at the hands of other inmates.
He estimated 100 to 200 men were involved in the incidents and said the prison will remain locked down until further notice.
"It's hard to tell exactly who was involved and who was trying to stay out of the way, but also not cause problems for themselves," Frakes said.
State employees union executive director Mike Marvin said Monday that it is always a concern that once staff loses control, inmates will settle grievances on their own.
"That happens in almost every prison riot," he said.
On Sunday, inmates took control of two housing units and of staff offices in those units, but not of control centers, said Frakes, who was hired by Gov. Pete Ricketts in February after a disastrous year for the Department of Correctional Services that included chronic overcrowding and the accidental early release of hundreds of inmates.
The trouble at the Tecumseh prison started about 2:30 p.m. Sunday with what Frakes called an unauthorized gathering of about 40 inmates in front of a housing unit. When a staff member tried to break up the gathering, he was assaulted, Frakes said.
A second staff member tried to intervene and also was assaulted. They were identified as Cpl. Joseph Hatzenbuehler and caseworker Brandon Guern, and both have returned to work.
After the assaults, the group became more volatile, Frakes said, and prison staff was unable to control it.
"A tower officer fired warning shots and fired a shot at an inmate, striking him in the leg," Frakes said.
That inmate and another who was shot with a rubber bullet were taken to Lincoln hospitals.
Several relatives of inmates called the Journal Star Monday worried their loved ones were among those who had been shot. Late Monday, prison officials said families who have not gotten a call from prison authorities can assume their relatives behind bars are safe and secure.
Multiple incidents began in several housing units after the shots were fired from the prison's guard tower.
Frakes said housing units 2 and 3 sustained the most damage, with fire, water and smoke damage, broken windows, ceiling tiles, a wall and cameras torn down. Staff offices were also damaged.
At one point, a recreation staff member barricaded herself in an office in a gym and was rescued by members of special teams, as were other staff members, Frakes said.
In all, 76 emergency response team members helped gain control over the course of the afternoon and night, he said.
"We wanted to ensure we didn't have staff members hurt," Frakes said. "It was just a slow, thoughtful process."
By 1 a.m., staff had locked inmates into cells or programming areas, including three small outside yards. Late Monday morning, about a dozen inmates still were being guarded on an outdoor basketball court.
The atmosphere is tense, he said.
On Sunday night, inmates said the disturbance started over living conditions and lack of access to jobs and exercise on the prison yard.
"We just want fairness," inmate Jeff Frank said during a phone call from an office in one of the housing units. "We've got guards who don't know how to treat a person. We're in a prison, but we're human beings, too. ... They dog us out. The jobs. We want more jobs."
Frakes said Tecumseh is not overcrowded, and he believes the maximum-security prison that has a population of about 1,000 is adequately staffed. When mandatory positions are vacated, they are filled with relief staff or overtime is used, he said.
"I don't believe the facility's understaffed," he said.
The Tecumseh prison has a design capacity of 960, including those on death row. As of April 30, it was home to 1,008, or at 105 percent of capacity.
Union director Marvin agreed that Tecumseh is the least crowded of the state's prisons, but he said it is one of the most understaffed.
"I can't tell you what the ratio of inmate to staff is, but we have a hard time getting staff into Tecumseh," Marvin said. "That's probably one of (former Gov.) Ben Nelson's biggest mistakes was putting that prison down there where there's no real workforce to draw from."
Tecumseh Mayor Bill Montz said he, too, believes the prison struggles with guards cycling in and out.
“I think they have tremendous turnover,” Montz said, adding that most prison employees live outside of town and commute, often because their spouses can’t find jobs in town.
Before the prison opened in 2001, state officials warned Tecumseh to prepare for a flood of people who'd be moving to town to work at the prison, former Mayor Lavern Bartles said.
The influx never came, he said.
Bartles said the town has tried to attract people and wants them to become invested in Tecumseh and stay, thus stabilizing the workforce at the prison.
“That’s exactly what we’re striving for,” he said.
A former Tecumseh prison employee agreed that turnover is a problem and sees little chance for improvement without big change.
"They need a huge shakeup all the way down to captains many times," said the former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Low pay keeps staff numbers low. They run off good staff that don't have to put up with the crap. They treat staff like inmates. They hated people that wouldn't just go with the flow and had a brain, people that questioned them."
The Corrections Department and patrol are investigating what caused the incidents. There's no indication it was related to incidents Saturday that led to a lockdown at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
Frakes said factors that led to the trouble in Tecumseh and how they were handled will be reviewed both by internal and outside resources, and the results will be made public.
The investigation will include the shooting by officers, and those who did the shooting will not be placed in an armed post until the investigation is complete, Frakes said.
On Monday morning, smoke drifted up from inside a housing unit at the prison outside Tecumseh after some inmates being held in outdoor yards set some chairs on fire to get warm.
"They were plastic so they burned well, and they burned a lot of black smoke," Frakes said.
The fire marshal is assessing part of one living unit to determine if inmates can be safely put there.
"If we can put the inmates back in, then that will take care of our population needs for the moment," Frakes said. "If not, we will need to figure out where we will move those inmates to."
Late Monday, Corrections spokesman James Foster said no one is being moved at this time.
As of April 30, the Nebraska prison system as a whole was at 160 percent of capacity.
ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said weekend problems can be tracked to conditions.
"These riots are a painful reminder that Nebraska’s prison system is a system in crisis," she said in a statement. "Our research has clearly documented horrific conditions of confinement rampant throughout our overcrowded prison system that threatens public safety now and into the future. ... The ACLU has documented case files of hundreds of inmates who have been denied health care, access to rehabilitation programs, or who have been assaulted, or put into solitary confinement."
Sunday night, inmate Daryl Eskridge said the disturbance broke out after repeated attempts to get prison officials to address grievances.
"This is not a white thing, a black thing," he said. "This is a people thing.
"We understand this is a prison, but we have been subjected to a lot of things the department doesn't want people to see."
He said inmates intended to give Frakes a copy of a petition, and then things went wrong.
"They came with the force," he said. "Nobody (inmates) had any weapons."
Foster said Frakes has not received the petition.
The prison has been on modified lockdown for some time, meaning limited access to exercise time on the yard. Foster said that's because of past behavior.