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Lawsuit Challenges Overcrowding in State Prisons

Nebraska prisons hit "emergency levels" of 140-percent of capacity a decade ago. (jodylehigh/Pixabay)
Nebraska prisons hit "emergency levels" of 140-percent of capacity a decade ago. (jodylehigh/Pixabay)
August 18, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. – A coalition is seeking class-action status for a lawsuit to end overcrowding in Nebraska prisons. At nearly 160 percent of capacity, civil-liberties advocates say the overcrowding has led to constitutional violations that endanger the health, safety and lives of those who are incarcerated and prison staff.

According to Amy Miller, legal director of the ACLU of Nebraska, people in prison can wait weeks for medical attention, including psychiatric illness, are shut out of vocational classes, and may spend years in solitary confinement.

"We have folks that aren't going to come home rehabilitated," she says. "They're going to come home sicker or more angry, and less likely to succeed on the outside."

Gov. Pete Ricketts responded to the suit, saying releasing people from prison to reduce overcrowding would endanger public safety, but about one-third were sentenced for nonviolent crimes.

Miller adds that years of new laws imposing longer sentences, combined with programming that hasn't grown to match the larger prison population, means fewer people are eligible for parole.

"The parole board says, 'Well you haven't done these classes,'" she says. "And the prisoners say, 'I can't - there are no spaces and there's no staff to provide them.' And the parole board says, 'Okay then, no parole.'"

She points out that other states have reduced overcrowding by reforming sentencing laws and providing more opportunities for rehabilitation and early release.

The prisons reached 140 percent of capacity ten years ago. Miller says despite multiple pleas to the legislature, governor and the Department of Correctional Services, the overcrowding has gotten worse.

"When the executive branch is failing to adequately request the funding when the legislative branch won't fix the laws, that's when you turn to the third branch of government and you say, 'Now we need a judge to fix this,'" she explains.

The lawsuit seeks no monetary damages. It asks for new policies, procedures and adequate funding to provide for the housing, care and rehabilitation of people in prison.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NE