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Unreleased report: Nebraska prison primed for riot in 2015

November 30, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Understaffing and other preventable issues left a Nebraska prison primed for a rebellion ahead of a 2015 riot that led to the death of two inmates and millions of dollars in damage, according to a previously unreleased report.

The existence of the report came to light this week during a trial for a former inmate’s lawsuit against the state over the riot at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution three years ago. John Wizinsky sued the state for trauma upon his release in 2016, alleging that prison guards were negligent in failing to protect inmates during the riot. Wizinsky testified that inmates were abandoned to fend for themselves while prisoners took over a housing unit, started fires and attacked other inmates.

The trial came to a halt Wednesday when a judge recused himself and declared a mistrial. But testimony earlier this week from a former Tecumseh warden revealed that there were two reports about the riot, though attorneys only knew of one.

The testimony led attorneys representing the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to produce the previously unreleased report, according to Joy Shiffermiller, Wizinsky’s attorney.

The newly released report, which was written in 2015, was more critical of the department than the study that was released to the public.

The department declined to comment on why the report wasn’t released.

On the day of the riot, the Tecumseh prison was understaffed by four people and four program areas were closed, according to the report written by Dan Pacholke of the Washington State Department of Corrections and Bert Useem of Purdue University, an expert on prison riots.

The other study had said that the riot occurred as “a matter of chance.” But Pacholke and Useem’s report pointed to several conditions in the prison that should have been addressed and corrected.

Beyond understaffing, Pacholke and Useem cited pre-riot conditions such as housing protective custody inmates next to maximum-security inmates, subpar management of gangs and inmate unrest over perceived tightening of rules.

“The prison was under stress; inmates were unsettled; the ‘barometric pressure’ was high and rising,” the report said. “When the initial resistance took place, this stress permitted small acts of resistance to expand rapidly.”

According to state records, Pacholke and Useem’s report cost the department about $20,000, but there’s no mention of the report in any press releases about the riot.

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