By Paul Hammel
LINCOLN — Nikko Jenkins isn’t the only prison inmate who hasn’t been prepared to re-enter society.
A new report indicates rehabilitation programs in Nebraska prisons are inadequate and have not kept pace with a growing population of inmates.
The lack of treatment options has exacerbated overcrowding, risks public safety and could violate state laws, according to the report.
Two state senators said they were alarmed by the report, which indicates that only about 13 percent of prison inmates were enrolled in anger management, substance abuse and sex offender treatment.
The report also said about 1 in 7 inmates, or 708, were on waiting lists for treatment. Some inmates were blocked from being paroled because they couldn’t get into required rehab.
The lawmakers said the lack of available rehabilitation illustrates a broken and neglected state corrections system, which has seen prison populations grow by 11.5 percent over the past five years but funding increase by only 3.5 percent.
“I’ve never seen any system quite so broken, and I’m not overstating that,” said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who is drafting a bill on prison reform.
“We’ve got some serious problems,” said Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha. “These offenders are coming back into our neighborhoods, and if they’re coming back with substance abuse and mental illness issues they haven’t gotten treatment for, they’re coming back worse than they came in.”
Gov. Dave Heineman said he is still reviewing the report, released last week by the State Ombudsman’s Office.
A spokeswoman for the Corrections Department said the report accounts only for “formal” treatment and doesn’t include the full array of routine work done with inmates.
Dawn-Renee Smith, the spokeswoman, said social workers deal with inmates on discharge planning. The report doesn’t consider the department’s mental health services, which have expanded in recent years.
The agency also has increased its substance abuse beds to 250 and shortened the length of an in-prison drug treatment program to accommodate twice as many inmates, she said.
Smith did not dispute the figures in the ombudsman’s report, but she indicated that the department’s focus has been on treatment of inmates who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, which now stands at 33 percent of those behind prison bars.
However, a former state prison warden said that basically “nothing” has kept up with growth in the Nebraska inmate population, other than increased mental health care.
As of Dec. 31, the state prison system held 4,864 inmates, 53 percent above capacity.
Dennis Bakewell, who retired nine months ago, said budget cuts have eliminated programs that allowed inmates to earn college credits while behind bars and to prepare for jobs in welding, auto repair and food service.
Why the lack of funds?
“The constituency are inmates and their families,” Bakewell said. “They aren’t voters, they have no political power. … Pretty much no one cares about inmates.”
The Ombudsman’s Office investigates complaints about state government agencies. Its report on rehab programs is separate from a report it released last week questioning the lack of treatment provided to Jenkins.
Jenkins stands charged with four slayings in Omaha that authorities allege he committed within three weeks of his July 30 release from prison.
The Ombudsman’s Office said Jenkins, a violent and mentally troubled inmate, spent the last two years of his sentence in disciplinary segregation, an isolation cell where inmates do not receive rehab for things like anger management and mental illness.
Jenkins was released “cold” into the community, without any transition from spending 23 hours a day alone in a segregation cell.
Such high-risk, potentially dangerous inmates who have spent time in isolation are most in need of rehabilitation and transition programs, said State Ombudsman Marshall Lux. But his office’s report showed a lack of priority for such treatment.
“That’s what troubles me,” Lux said. “You need an agency that puts a high value on programming and rehabilitation. That’s not something I see in the department right now.”
The ombudsman’s report was based on a snapshot of inmates on Sept. 23 who were involved in treatment for sex offender, substance abuse, anger management or violence.
Among the deficits identified:
» In-prison programs for sex offenders, which are 24 to 36 months long, are offered at only one of the state’s eight prisons for men, and that facility is in Lincoln.
» The department’s outpatient sex offender treatment, called OHelp, is offered at only two facilities, both in Lincoln.
» The anger management program is available only to inmates on community release, not in prison (with the exception of the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility in Lincoln).
» The violence-reduction program has been offered to only 12 inmates a year, though the department is shortening the program to nine months to open it up to more inmates.
» No rehabilitation of significance is offered to inmates in segregation or protective custody.
In the report, Lux recommended finding ways, such as via video, to provide services to inmates such as Jenkins who are in segregation.
He said rehab programs should be offered in every institution because completing them is often a requirement of parole and early release.
The ombudsman said he has received continued complaints from inmates and their families about being caught in a Catch-22 — they are required to complete a sex offender or anger management class to be paroled but can’t get into the class. That means they sit in prison waiting, increasing the inmate population.
Ruben Hardy of Lincoln experienced that firsthand while serving 16 years for robbery.
Hardy, now 54 and a chef and ordained minister, said the Parole Board deferred his release until he completed mental health treatment. Because shorter-term inmates get priority for such programs, Hardy said, he had to wait an extra year before taking the class.
“In the meantime, you’re just walking about wondering what you’re going to do,” said Hardy, whose ministry includes helping ex-cons transition into society. “There’s a real bottleneck.”
Esther Casmer, chairwoman of the State Parole Board, said there are inmates the board won’t parole because they haven’t obtained required rehabilitation.
She declined to comment on whether the problem is getting worse, and she said sometimes it’s the fault of an inmate who refuses to participate or waits too long to sign up for classes.
Casmer said her impression is that corrections is doing the “best it can” within its budget, but she also made it clear that more rehab is needed.
“The Parole Board would like to see the ‘perfect world,’ where programming is provided equally in every (prison) facility,” she said. “That would make our job easier.”
Does rehab make a difference?
Definitely, said Casmer and Bakewell, the former prison warden.
“Personally, I’d rather have as a neighbor an individual who has gone through programming than one who hasn’t,” Casmer said.
Marc Levin, who helped guide a prison reform effort in Texas that allowed the state to close prisons and reduce spending, said increased rehab while in prison was key in the Lone Star State.
It’s also a smart move for public safety, Levin said, pointing to a recent Pew Center report indicating that inmates who received proper parole supervision were 40 percent less likely to commit a repeat crime.
The ombudsman, in his report, suggested that the Corrections Department may be in violation of a state law that requires inmates be provided substance abuse therapy before they become eligible for parole, and also given “adequate access” to mental health therapy prior to that date.
Smith, the prison spokeswoman, said the department has shifted some rehab programs to outside prison in order to get inmates released sooner. She said the department gives priority to shorter-term inmates for in-prison rehabilitation, which also is an effort to relieve overcrowding.
Nationally, prisons have seen an influx of mentally ill inmates with the closing of mental health institutions.
In Nebraska, the department recently increased the size of its mental health wing at the Lincoln Correctional Center from 60 to 80 beds and also established a similar 10-bed unit at the women’s prison in York. Mental health staffing, though, hasn’t changed in five years.
Ashford, who heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, pledged to address the rehab problem in a prison reform bill he is drafting.
He said he is looking at bulking up treatment programs and creating an oversight council to ensure that inmates are better prepared to re-enter society.
Ashford said he’s also looking at a new research unit at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the NU Medical Center to better document which rehabilitation programs work and which don’t.
The Legislature and Nebraska Supreme Court, Ashford said, have invited the Council of State Governments Justice Center to come to Nebraska and study the problems facing the prison system.
About 2,000 Nebraska inmates are released each year. Ashford and Mello said the prison system needs to shift focus to better prepare them for life on the outside.
“It’s a system that’s been neglected for a number of years. Right now if nothing is done … we are putting public safety at risk,” Mello said.