For three years, Nebraska prison officials attributed the 2015 Mother’s Day riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute — which left two inmates dead and did extensive damage to the facility — to a random, spontaneous uprising.
That narrative, first unveiled in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services’ initial report that summer, persisted until last week.
During a civil trial in which a former inmate sought damages for hardships he endured during and after the riot, it came to light that a second report existed that was also commissioned by Corrections in 2015 — one that painted a far more critical picture of the department. In it, the authors told of a “'barometric pressure' that was high and rising,” making the prison ripe for rebellion.
Numerous reports have detailed the need for a culture change within the walls of the state's correctional institutions. Last week’s discovery adds another improvement — transparency — in need of emphasis by the administration.
It never should have taken a lawsuit, several years after the fact, to reveal this information. Its suggestions about addressing a staff shortage, inmate grouping and a lack of programming remain applicable as problems continue to plague the state's prison system.
The agency’s secrecy is an affront to Nebraskans. Our tax dollars fund the state’s prison operations, including the $20,000 spent on this previously unreleased report. Those operations have deservedly been under a microscope in recent years.
Yet the Corrections Department has repeatedly spurned attempts at oversight by lawmakers and the media.
A legal victory for the Journal Star and other news outlets seeking details about the drugs used to execute Carey Dean Moore was immediately appealed, allowing the execution to occur. Meanwhile, Attorney General Doug Peterson sued several state senators for a special committee’s efforts to subpoena Corrections Director Scott Frakes.
In 2016, the second report should have been included among documents related to the riot that were requested by then Judiciary Chairman Les Seiler. Despite the breadth of his request, which certainly would have included the 2015 report, the findings remained a secret for two more years.
This most recent discovery begs further questions: Is Corrections hiding something else? If so, what?
If a study that criticized the culture within the Tecumseh facility and state prisons as a whole was buried for three years, perhaps other documents exist that shine new light on Nebraska’s beleaguered penal system.
Prisons aren’t the place to leave and forget about our state’s dirty laundry. Though they’re out of sight for many Nebraskans, they shouldn't be out of mind. As such, additional transparency — not just the kind mandated by a trial — would be a step toward helping fix Corrections’ problems.