Tecumseh prison was primed for rebellion before riot, says previously undisclosed report

November 30, 2018

Experts asked to look into the causes of a destructive and deadly Mother’s Day riot in 2015 concluded conditions at the Tecumseh prison left it primed for a rebellion, according to a previously unreleased report.

“The prison was under stress; inmates were unsettled; the ‘barometric pressure’ was high and rising,” wrote Dan Pacholke, formerly responsible for operations at the Washington State Department of Corrections, and Bert Useem, a Purdue University professor who has published two books on prison riots.

Their report came to light in this week’s civil trial in which a former inmate at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution sought damages against the state for the post-traumatic stress he has experienced since he witnessed a beating and was left without food or his diabetic medication for 18 hours.

It’s unclear why the 12-page report, which was commissioned by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to take a broader look at the factors that led to the riot and recommendations to improve the prison system, wasn’t released publicly back when it was completed.

In 2015, Corrections Director Scott Frakes released a final report about the riot by the Critical Incident Review Team, which concluded the riot had happened as a matter of chance.

Pacholke and Useem said in their report that they saw it differently.

When the initial resistance took place in the prison yard on May 10, 2015, stress on the facility permitted small acts of resistance to spread quickly from the yard into two housing units and the gymnasium, they said.

The report pointed to staffing issues, apparent coordination among inmate gangs and a “somewhat disjointed” response.

The day of the riot, the Tecumseh prison was understaffed by four, so four program areas were closed. And the shift when it happened had a high concentration of relatively new, inexperienced staff, the report said.

At the time, 45 percent of the staff were hired on or after 2013.

When too many inmates ended up on the yard and too few staff, “the capacity to contain the initial assault diminished significantly.”

“Once the disturbance started to grow and the need for additional staff was apparent, the facility had already maximized its response and exhausted staff resources. They were overwhelmed,” Pacholke and Useem wrote.

The incident commander for the first six hours was the acting shift supervisor, a sergeant serving as an acting lieutenant. While he demonstrated a good command presence, they said, staff were implementing independent actions at critical times, like turning off inmate phones and cutting off calls with negotiators.

The report suggested the state consider changing the population of the Tecumseh prison to lower custody inmates “who would be better suited for supervision by more junior staff”; and create separate housing units for different custody levels to give inmates incentives to work toward lower security levels and more opportunities for programming and activities.

Pacholke and Useem said the greater a prison’s orientation toward rehabilitation through case management and programming, the safer it becomes.

“Giving inmates the opportunity to engage in activities they find meaningful (e.g. treatment, education, vocational training) reduces idleness and incentivizes desistance from violent and disruptive behavior,” they wrote.

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