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Senators criticize handling of Nebraska prison-riot report

December 11, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers blasted state corrections officials for withholding a less-than-flattering report about the causes of a deadly 2015 prison riot, even though one of the report’s authors acknowledged Tuesday that it contained no sensitive information.

Bert Useem, a Purdue University sociologist who co-authored the report, told a legislative committee that he didn’t understand why the report wasn’t disclosed until last month, during a civil trial related to the riot.

In a letter Friday to a legislative committee, Corrections Director Scott Frakes said his department never intended to hide information or deceive the public but wanted to protect “sensitive information” for the safety of prison staff and inmates. Several lawmakers have questioned that claim, saying they saw nothing in the report that merited secrecy.

“I share your assessment that the sensitivity of the information would not warrant withholding this report,” Useem said in testimony before a joint legislative committee. “Why Director Frakes did withhold it, I just don’t know.”

The 11-page report, which cost the state $20,000, contradicts prison officials’ longstanding claims that the riot erupted spontaneously. The report argues the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution was primed for a riot because of understaffing, stricter rules and a coordinated push by prison gangs. It also faulted the prison’s policy of housing maximum- and medium-security inmates close to each other and noted a lack of recreational activities and yard time to ease tensions.

Another report that was publicly released concluded that the inmate uprising began by chance.

Sen. Laura Ebke, the committee’s chairwoman, said she was concerned that state officials spent $20,000 on a report that consisted of staff interviews, but no conversations with inmates. Ebke said she didn’t consider the report to be sensitive and noted that it was produced a year after the riot, which should have given staff members time to address security concerns.

Ebke said the late disclosure of the report undermines the trust between lawmakers and the Department of Correctional Services, part of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration.

“It makes it a lot tougher for us to feel secure that there are no other reports out there,” she said.

Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha, blasted department leaders for showing a “lack of transparency and lack of truthfulness” in their decision not to release the report. Krist, a recent Democratic candidate for governor, repeated his previous calls for Frakes to be fired.

“I’m at a loss for why it’s considered secretive in any way,” he said. “I’m more concerned that the lack of transparency was intentional to keep us from taking action, or knowing what action needed to be taken.”

Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said prison officials could have redacted sensitive security information from the report, which cost the state $20,000.

“I find it disappointing,” she said.

Doug Koebernick, the Inspector General of Nebraska Correctional Services, said he often faces delays in getting information from the department. Koebernick said the agency cooperates sometimes, but other times he has to fight for access.

“We have a constant tug-of-war when it comes to the release of information,” said Koebernick, who was appointed by the Legislature to serve in a watchdog role.

Frakes declined to appear before the committee in person or make other prison administrators available, citing the pending lawsuit. Ricketts, who appointed Frakes in February 2015, said last week that officials would have made the report available to anyone who asked for it.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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