‘It does make it very difficult’: Corrections watchdog says he’s been cut off from entering Nebraska

More prison overcrowding, an uptick in staff shortages and 19 inmate deaths.Those are some of the concerns Nebraska’s prison watchdog highlighted in his new report.The inspector general of corrections turned in his annual review to state lawmakers Monday.And he’s also concerned by what he’s not seeing lately.Doug Koebernick said for the past month, the Department of Corrections has not provided his office with important corrections reports or even allowed him to step foot in a prison.”It does make it very difficult to know what’s going on when you can’t go inside and talk to people,” Koebernick said.Koebernick said that started happening once Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers issued an advisory opinion in mid-August that questioned the constitutionality of the authority of the Office of Inspector General for both corrections and child welfare.Last week, lawmakers hired an outside legal firm to look into what actions can be taken.”I’m concerned going forward because by not allowing us access to their information or even access to go within the prison, it’s going to be really hard for us to carry out our duties that are in law,” Koebernick said.While missing some updated information because of the department’s refusal to share records, the new report shows overcrowding remains at 140% of design capacity. There were 200 more inmates than a year ago. Staffing vacancies and turnover rates, which saw improvement last year, are on the uptick again.”We were offering double pay as far as overtime, and that ended at the end of June. What we’ve heard is there are people who came from other states are now returning back to their home states because that double overtime went away and their previous state has raised their salary,” Koebernick said.He said 19 inmates died so far this year. Most were due to natural causes.Though the report notes, a female inmate who died of cervical cancer had not had a pap smear in nine years of incarceration.”The problem was that the Department of Corrections did not have any system set up to track preventive measures,” Koebernick said. Another died of a meth overdose after cutting a hole in the ceiling and escaping to the roof of the Community Corrections Center in Omaha.And Koebernick said, in one death investigation, his office was able to discover key video footage.”We found that there was video that was never shared with the state patrol or the grand jury that really was important in looking at what happened that day of his death,” Koebernick said. And while the report shows restrictive housing has decreased under the new corrections director.”That number now is as low as it’s been since I’ve been in this office,” Koebernick said. He said nine inmates remained isolated from the general population for over five years.”There are two of them that are scheduled to be released from prison in December. And not to be paroled or anything like that. They’re just going to walk out without any supervision,” Koebernick said.He hopes that they will have some release plan or programming.”With the recent opinion, we’re not able to verify what’s happening with those individuals,” Koebernick said Koebernick also said an inmate classification that was supposed to be turned over to lawmakers last September prior to final approval of a new $350 million prison.”Really the whole point of it was to give them a better understanding of what the needs would be for a new prison. And here we are over a year after that was supposed to be done, and we don’t have it, that’s frustrating,” Koebernick said.A spokesperson for the Dept. of Corrections said in a statement:”Requests from the OIG are managed through a single point of contact and are provided in accordance with public information. “All deaths during incarceration are provided to the media via news releases and the NDCS website. “Staff assaults resulting in serious injury are reported to the media in the same manner as well.” The spokesperson said in February, NDCS was recruiting for 333 vacant positions. As of August that number was 367. The spokesperson said since the historic increases in 2021, vacancies have been reduced by almost half across the agency. Protective Services vacancies have declined by over 65%.”Most employers across the state and country are seeking to hire, so we continue to evaluate the best strategies to recruit and retain team members,” the spokesperson said.The spokesperson did not address either the deaths or the classification study.

More prison overcrowding, an uptick in staff shortages and 19 inmate deaths.

Those are some of the concerns Nebraska’s prison watchdog highlighted in his new report.

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The inspector general of corrections turned in his annual review to state lawmakers Monday.

And he’s also concerned by what he’s not seeing lately.

Doug Koebernick said for the past month, the Department of Corrections has not provided his office with important corrections reports or even allowed him to step foot in a prison.

“It does make it very difficult to know what’s going on when you can’t go inside and talk to people,” Koebernick said.

Koebernick said that started happening once Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers issued an advisory opinion in mid-August that questioned the constitutionality of the authority of the Office of Inspector General for both corrections and child welfare.

Last week, lawmakers hired an outside legal firm to look into what actions can be taken.

“I’m concerned going forward because by not allowing us access to their information or even access to go within the prison, it’s going to be really hard for us to carry out our duties that are in law,” Koebernick said.

While missing some updated information because of the department’s refusal to share records, the new report shows overcrowding remains at 140% of design capacity. There were 200 more inmates than a year ago. Staffing vacancies and turnover rates, which saw improvement last year, are on the uptick again.

“We were offering double pay as far as overtime, and that ended at the end of June. What we’ve heard is there are people who came from other states are now returning back to their home states because that double overtime went away and their previous state has raised their salary,” Koebernick said.

He said 19 inmates died so far this year. Most were due to natural causes.

Though the report notes, a female inmate who died of cervical cancer had not had a pap smear in nine years of incarceration.

“The problem was that the Department of Corrections did not have any system set up to track preventive measures,” Koebernick said.

Another died of a meth overdose after cutting a hole in the ceiling and escaping to the roof of the Community Corrections Center in Omaha.

And Koebernick said, in one death investigation, his office was able to discover key video footage.

“We found that there was video that was never shared with the state patrol or the grand jury that really was important in looking at what happened that day of his death,” Koebernick said.

And while the report shows restrictive housing has decreased under the new corrections director.

“That number now is as low as it’s been since I’ve been in this office,” Koebernick said.

He said nine inmates remained isolated from the general population for over five years.

“There are two of them that are scheduled to be released from prison in December. And not to be paroled or anything like that. They’re just going to walk out without any supervision,” Koebernick said.

He hopes that they will have some release plan or programming.

“With the recent opinion, we’re not able to verify what’s happening with those individuals,” Koebernick said

Koebernick also said an inmate classification that was supposed to be turned over to lawmakers last September prior to final approval of a new $350 million prison.

“Really the whole point of it was to give them a better understanding of what the needs would be for a new prison. And here we are over a year after that was supposed to be done, and we don’t have it, that’s frustrating,” Koebernick said.

A spokesperson for the Dept. of Corrections said in a statement:

“Requests from the OIG are managed through a single point of contact and are provided in accordance with public information.

“All deaths during incarceration are provided to the media via news releases and the NDCS website.

“Staff assaults resulting in serious injury are reported to the media in the same manner as well.”

The spokesperson said in February, NDCS was recruiting for 333 vacant positions. As of August that number was 367. The spokesperson said since the historic increases in 2021, vacancies have been reduced by almost half across the agency. Protective Services vacancies have declined by over 65%.

“Most employers across the state and country are seeking to hire, so we continue to evaluate the best strategies to recruit and retain team members,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson did not address either the deaths or the classification study.

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