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Senators want more info on secret report on 2015 prison riot

December 4, 2018

A committee of the Nebraska Legislature has questions for the Department of Correctional Services.

Whether it will get answers is also a question.

A second report on causes of the May 2015 Tecumseh prison riot, which came to light last week as part of a former inmate’s lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court, has prompted Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Laura Ebke to call a special hearing next week.

The report, by a now-former deputy secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections and a sociology professor at Purdue University, on the “causes, course and change” of the Tecumseh riot, was not made public after it was presented to the state corrections department during the summer of 2015.

“When you’ve got a Corrections system that, I would say, is in crisis in many ways, I don’t think it’s beneficial to try to withhold information or keep anything a secret,” Ebke said. “I think the more transparency the better, especially when taxpayers are paying for reports.”

The department did make public a Critical Incident Review Team report, but the unreleased report drew different conclusions.

It attributed the riot — in which two inmates were killed by other inmates, staff members were put in danger, and more than $500,000 in damage was done — to conditions at the prison that primed the inmate rebellion. It was not spontaneous, as the other report concluded, but rather a coordination of efforts by inmates and gangs.

Corrections Department Chief of Staff Laura Strimple said Monday because of the continuing case brought by John Wizinsky, a former inmate who is suing the state, alleging the department was negligent at the time of the riot, Director Scott Frakes would not make additional comments or answer questions about the report. It has become part of the case.

Last week, the judge in the former inmate’s case recused himself and declared a mistrial.

Questions by the Judiciary Committee to the department concern why the additional report was requested, whether Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office was shown the report in 2015, whether it was used to make changes in operations at the prisons, and why it was kept from the public and the Legislature. Ebke also wants to know on whose authority the department suppressed the report.

She said the upcoming hearing will be led primarily by members of the Judiciary Committee, but members of the Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee that Ebke leads will also be invited. The Judiciary Committee will seek testimony from the Corrections Department, the Nebraska Ombudsman’s office and Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick.

The hearing will enable legislators “to get to the bottom of all of this,” to ensure if there’s something that needs to be discussed on the record it can be done before a changeover in the Legislature in January and a new Judiciary Committee is formed.

Sen.-elect Steve Lathrop has put in his name to be considered for Ebke’s job as chairman of the committee next session. When Lathrop previously served in the Legislature for two terms, he was a vice chairman of the committee and chaired a special investigative committee of the Department of Corrections.

Ebke said the department initially may have wanted to keep details from the report confidential in 2015 to not empower gangs and other inmates.

But the department hasn’t made the case to her why there’s a reason in 2016, when then-Judiciary Chairman Les Seiler sent a letter asking for information about the riot, it would not have been released.

“Because, by that time, presumably, enough changes had been made from their internal procedures that it would have been history,” Ebke said. “It would have been a year later and they should have made enough changes.”

If they hadn’t, she said, there’s a much bigger problem.

Seiler’s letter in July 2016 on behalf of the Corrections Special Investigative Committee (LR34) asked for 27 categories of documents or data, and specifically for reports and studies regarding staffing issues back to 2013; documents relating to declaration of an emergency status arising out of the 2015 Tecumseh riot, and any extension of the emergency status; and any other document relating to staffing issues that might be helpful.

The department spent at least $20,000 on the document, according to StateSpending.Nebraska.gov, most of it paid to report authors Dan Pacholke and Bert Useem.

Spending of taxpayer dollars should have made it part of the record, Ebke said.

“If they’ve addressed (the riot) from a policy perspective, an operations perspective, good. But denying that it existed doesn’t help things,” she said.

If lawmakers had had the report when they asked for it in 2016, if they had more complete information, it could have changed the Legislature’s priorities in terms of oversight and legislation. And senators might have asked different questions.

Inspector General Koebernick said Monday he needed to know why the report was requested, what the department learned from it and what actions it took as a result.

“It can’t help but make you wonder if there are other reports or activities taken by the department that they haven’t shared with us about some of the important issues that they’ve faced over the past few years,” he said.

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