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Inmate riot

Inmate Lenaris Brown, standing in Tecumseh prison’s main yard as the May 10 riot began, holds a list of grievances he was trying to show to prison staff, who were observing the events through a window.

Inmate Lenaris Brown was captured on video May 10 at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution standing in the prison's main yard holding above his head a handwritten sign.

It was the day a riot broke out at the Southeast Nebraska maximum security prison, and Brown later said he was holding up the list of grievances he and other inmates had written to show prison staff he believed were watching. 

The protest quickly got out of hand, but the picture of Brown shows the destructive and deadly event was not a result of spontaneous combustion but had a motive and agenda, said Ombudsman Marshall Lux. 

The ombudsman's office wrote a 48-page report, released Monday, as an independent response to the Department of Correctional Services' critical incident report. It covered the motivation, grievances, how the riot played out, management of the riot and other observations. 

During the riot, an inmate -- Rashad Washington -- was shot and wounded. The ombudsman's report concluded that two warning shots by an officer in the tower did not satisfy the need for a reasonable warning that the use of deadly force was imminent.

At the time, inmates were being directed by loudspeaker to get on the ground or force would be used, and the inmates gathered by the gymnasium door were not obeying the directive. Nevertheless, the warning shots should have come immediately before the deadly force shots.

And because the officer in the tower was a fairly new employee, Lux recommended more veteran staff be assigned to the towers in the future.  

The ombudsman's report comes just before the Legislature's Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee begins a series of hearings on the prisons, including a state audit report Wednesday, and testimony from Director Scott Frakes and other prison officials expected Thursday and Friday. 

Understanding the motivation

The statement of grievances, said to have been written by Brown, Washington and a couple of others, is important to understanding the riot, Lux said. It lends credence to inmates who have said the motivation that day was to register a peaceful protest of the conditions and circumstances at the facility.

And it gives an account of the inmates' main frustrations and concerns.  

Those grievances included arbitrary placement in segregation; creation in Tecumseh of two classes of inmates, one with access to privileges, the other with a loss of privileges; disrespectful treatment by staff, especially younger ones with limited experience being hired to work at the maximum security facility; and incompatible inmates being placed together in cells. 

"We are human beings that are sent to prison as a punishment, NOT to be punished in the form of disrespect, ridicule, harassment, etc., by TSCI staff," the inmates who wrote the grievances said.

In interviews with ombudsman staff, Brown said the chief motivation of the intended protest was that inmates "just wanted the yard back."

Historically, general population inmates had an open yard that allowed them to circulate in and out of housing units and main yards much of the day. That changed at Tecumseh and the Nebraska State Penitentiary in the fall of 2012 when the prisons transitioned to a managed-yards model, in part because of growing concerns about gangs.

In holding up the statement, Brown told the ombudsman staff he was trying to show it to Associate Warden Scott Busboom, who was watching the yard along with other staff through a window. 

The inmates knew the protest would have consequences, but most did not foresee it unfolding quite the way it did, Lux said.

Brown said the assaults on staff were "not part of the plan," the situation "just went south." It quickly took on a violent character, Lux said.

"If we are going to understand the event, and hope thereby to avoid a repeat in the future, then we need to understand exactly what was going on, and why," Lux said.  

In discussing the reasons for the riot, the ombudsman's office is not suggesting that nonviolent motivations justify or excuse the actions of any of the inmates involved, Lux said. 

Nebraska prison riots uncommon

Prison officials tend to describe what happened on May 10 as an incident. But Lux doesn't hesitate to describe it as an incident that "quickly deteriorated into a full-blown prison riot." 

Tecumseh State Correctional Institute is a maximum security prison that at the time of the riot held more than 1,000 mostly maximum custody inmates. 

It was not unprecedented, but unusual for Nebraska, Lux said in the report. The last prison riot in the state was Aug. 15, 1955, at the Lincoln Penitentiary and had parallels to the May riot, Lux said.

The '55 riot also was a result of a concerted effort to improve inmates' living conditions, with complaints ranging from food to the parole system. Inmates in 1955 indicated they had found peaceful avenues to prison reform were largely ineffective. And so that riot was planned to be a violent event, even if the 2015 riot was planned -- at least by some -- to be nonviolent. 

Then, as now, the protest-turned-riot happened amid a national anxiety about the need for prison reform, about the use, or misuse, of solitary confinement and serious concerns about the comparatively high number of people in U.S. prisons. 

With all the talk of reform, Lux said, it is not surprising Brown and other inmates decided to mount a protest for needed reforms at Tecumseh. 

"Ideas are not stopped by razor wire," Lux said. "And inmates' knowledge of what is going on in the world does not end at the institution's perimeter fence." 

Inmates say Wellness League has privileges

If the Tecumseh prison is a difficult place to manage, it is also a difficult place to live, and some will live out their days there, Lux said.

Inmates listed in their grievances a so-called incentive/wellness league that was a requirement to work in the laundry, play group sports, use the music room, have access to a microwave and ice machine, and possibly more privileges. 

The objective was to encourage inmates to improve their health with exercise. Participation in what became a three-tiered program was based on inmates' behavior, and requirements to be free of types of misconduct reports for three months to a year. Participants were given more time out of their cells.

Those not in the Wellness League viewed it as unfair, saying less than 10 percent of inmates in Housing Unit 2, which became the focus of the riot, were allowed into the league. That unit had a larger number of men classified in a "Security Threat Group," or alleged gang members.

It gave the appearance that Security Threat Group inmates were being "ghettoized" in a housing unit where they were given fewer privileges and benefits, and thus two classes of inmates were created.

"To a certain extent, it would appear that this concern was justified," Lux said. "When examined closely, the management of the Wellness League at TSCI went far beyond the concept of incentivizing good behavior."

It devolved into a means to take away some privileges the inmates had been accustomed to, he said, as standards for participation were ratcheted up.

Other issues to address

Lux praised Director Frakes for initiating an "honest and open" evaluation of the riot by bringing in an outside expert to write its critical incident report.

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"Over the long term, Mr. Frakes' handling of this element of the response to the riot may be as important as (or even more important than) the lessons to be learned from the event itself," Lux said. 

Frakes responded to Lux that he appreciated the time and effort put into examining the events of May 10 and will use the report to further guide the department's work to improve operations at Tecumseh and throughout the agency.

"I am committed to building a corrections system that is safe, healthy and effective," he said. "The perspectives and insight provided by you and your staff will help us achieve those goals." 

Frakes said the events of May 10 have slowed down the efforts to address challenges across the prison system, but the department is moving forward.

Lux said the Department of Corrections has a great many other pressing issues to address, overcrowding chief among them.

"And it would be sad if the riot, notwithstanding its drama and shock value, would distract us from addressing those other issues," he said. 

Staffing: Since opening in 2001, Tecumseh has had significant staffing issues, with a higher-than-normal vacancy rate leading to complications that make it difficult to manage in a number of ways. That has led to more mandatory overtime, which leads to more turnover. 

Addressing the staffing issues should be a high priority and include embracing an employee friendly philosophy and providing the security staff with better pay, at least at the correctional officer, corporal and sergeant levels. 

"... We should not allow the facility's management team to utilize the facility's location as an excuse for its high job vacancy rate and overtime problems," Lux said. 

Judgment of Tecumseh's management team should be based on its ability to reduce the level of turnover and stabilize staffing, he said. 

Repurposing: It may be necessary to reconfigure the prison population to fit the staffing, rather than the other way around. Frakes has proposed doubling the single occupancy in about 120 cells.

The ombudsman's office is "at least a little bit worried," Lux said, about adding inmates to Tecumseh when the real message of the riot was to make the prison more manageable. In addition to changing the population, the environment should also be changed.

"Today, for many of Nebraska's male inmates, TSCI is the last place where they want to live," Lux said. 

But it could become a more desirable setting, he said, by restoring a hobby and crafts program, re-emphasizing self-betterment clubs and providing more ambitious programming for inmates. 

Humanity: There are those who think of prisons as warehouses where the state keeps disagreeable and dysfunctional people, Lux said. 

"When we see these people trimming the Capitol lawn, surely we recognize their humanity," he said.

Although they are human beings who have made some very serious mistakes, he said, the state has created this prison community and the state's leadership needs to understand there are likely to be communal complaints. 

"And those complaints need to be identified, aired and addressed, in the interest of all concerned," he said. 

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

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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