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Prison Oversight

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes testifies at a legislative hearing in Lincoln on Oct. 20, 2017, convened to examine issues in the Department of Correctional Services. Nebraska prison workers say they're deeply concerned about employee morale and turnover in the corrections department, despite recent efforts to make improvements.

For more than 48 hours, Nebraskans were unaware that a convicted killer never returned to Community Corrections Center-Lincoln after completing his work release shift.

Anthony Gafford remains at large. He could have gone anywhere in that time. But members of the public who may have encountered him and called law enforcement to notify them of his whereabouts were left in the dark.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services said it followed its policy in failing to inform media outlets and, in turn, the public. But its director’s reversal last week indicates the agency realizes the error in its ways – one that must not be allowed to be repeated.

Testifying before the Nebraska Legislature on unrelated prisons bills last week, Corrections Director Scott Frakes told state senators that this situation had made him rethink the department’s policy on walkaways. Though he views them more as absconding from parole than escape from a secure facility, he said that Nebraska media would be informed of future incidences.

Corrections appears to have followed its existing policy to the letter. But, as the delay from a Saturday to a Tuesday showed, that policy was insufficient.

The department updated its online prisoner record to reflect Gafford’s escaped status, though nobody would have known to look for that detail at the time. And law enforcement agencies were also notified within the hour, as Chief Lancaster County Deputy Sheriff Todd Duncan told the Journal Star.

But Duncan is correct that the sheriff’s office relies on Corrections to inform the general public. Police departments and sheriff’s offices serve small, distinct geographic areas.

An agency covering all of Nebraska, though, has a much larger reach – and connections with nearly all the state’s media outlets, which can and would quickly spread the news of an inmate at large as a matter of public awareness.

Failing to return to a minimum-security facility in Lincoln after work release isn’t as brazen as sneaking out of the Lincoln Correctional Center in a laundry cart, as two inmates did in 2016. But both instances involved offenders convicted of violent crimes who failed to complete the terms of their sentence.

As such, they need to be treated the same.

We don’t – and likely won’t – know if an immediate notification may have resulted in his apprehension. However, an opportunity to apprehend Gafford could very well have been lost in the two-plus days Nebraskans were unaware of his escape.

Frakes’ promise to update the department’s policy moving forward represents, without question, a vast improvement over what was in place before Gafford’s escape. But this change never should have required a convicted killer’s escape – and more than two days before the public was notified – to occur.

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