Criticism, calls for investigation after prison has second deadly riot in 2 years

LINCOLN, Neb. — Two years after a deadly riot led to promises to fix long-standing problems at a Nebraska prison, officials were struggling Friday to respond to criticism after inmates again seized control of a cellblock in an uprising that left two of them dead.

Some lawmakers and prisoner advocates said Thursday’s riot is proof that the governor and corrections officials haven’t responded quickly enough to the problems at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution that were laid bare by the 2015 mayhem. Two inmates died during that 9-hour takeover of the prison, and prisoners caused more than $2 million in damage.

Prisoners burn objects as they mill in a courtyard behind razor wire at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Tecumseh, Neb., Thursday, March 2, 2017.

Nati Harnik, AP

“The horrific conditions of confinement rampant in Nebraska prisons threaten public safety now and into the future,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. Conrad said her group plans to file a lawsuit against state officials to force more changes.

Prison administrators said the new security technology and procedures they’ve adopted since 2015 kept the riot from spreading. Gov. Pete Ricketts has asked the Legislature to approve $95 million in additional funding to hire officers at Tecumseh and other prisons as well as build a new inmate treatment center that should ease chronic overcrowding.

Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said the uprising was “significantly smaller” than the 2015 riot, which involved several housing units, and was contained much faster.

“There are multiple opportunities for individuals to make bad decisions and act out violently,” Frakes said at a news conference Friday. “Yesterday, they chose to injure and take the lives of other human beings and destroy property.”

Officials also said it was still unclear specifically what led to Thursday’s riot and that legislators shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

But some lawmakers on Friday criticized the department for failing to address staffing shortages and trying to gloss over its problems.

“When we have concerns with the Department of Corrections, they are often downplayed, they are minimized, and I fail to see that the Department of Corrections has taken decisive action,” said state Sen. Adam Morfeld, of Lincoln.

State Sen. Matt Hansen, of Lincoln, said the deaths were “unacceptable” and show that lawmakers will need to maintain oversight of the department.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, said the latest incident showed a lack of competency from prison administrators.

“Ever since Mr. Frakes has been here, things have gone steadily downhill,” Chambers said.

The latest riot began around 1 p.m. Thursday when roughly 40 inmates refused to return to their cells in a maximum-security unit that houses 128 prisoners. When staff members realized the situation had become unsafe, they left and isolated the inmates in one housing unit, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith.

Smith said the unit was “secured” around 4:30 p.m. and wasn’t extensively damaged despite fires that were set inside it.

The two inmates who died in Thursday’s riot were identified Friday as 39-year-old Damon Fitzgerald and 31-year-old Michael Galindo. Prison officials didn’t say how or why they perished. 

According to authorities, Fitzgerald was serving 310 to 470 years for a Douglas County conviction for sexual assault and other charges, CBS affiliate KMTV reports, while Galindo was serving a 12 to 21 jail sentence on robbery and other charges. 

No prison workers were injured. An unspecified number of inmates suffered injuries that weren’t life-threatening, Frakes said.

Two inmates serving time for sex crimes were killed during the May 2015 riot, which lasted roughly nine hours and caused more than $2 million in damage. After the riot, state officials spent $1.9 million to install camera and cell-locking upgrades.

Nebraska’s prisons have faced a bevy of other problems in recent years, including the June 2016 escape of two men serving time for sex crimes. In 2014, under a previous administration, prison officials acknowledged that they miscalculated hundreds of inmate sentences and released some of them too early.

Some senators threw their support behind the prison system. State Sen. Steve Halloran said lawmakers should wait for law enforcement to investigate the riot before jumping to conclusions about what caused it.

“So far all I’ve heard is a lot of posturing from people who seem to think that correction facilities are a preschool,” said Halloran, of Hastings. “It’s a dangerous job.” 

Criticism, calls for investigation after prison has second deadly riot in 2 years

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