The American Civil Liberties Union has brought a federal class-action lawsuit against what it claims is “extreme” overcrowding in Nebraska state prisons.
The 87-page complaint, filed Aug. 16 by the ACLU, its state chapter, and another local activist group on behalf of 11 current and former inmates, claims the state Department of Corrections, parole board, and their top officials have ignored “unconstitutional and discriminatory conditions and treatment” of inmates, causing them “unnecessary and avoidable pain, suffering, permanent injuries and deaths.” The suit seeks to represent all inmates in state facilities, and asks for the state to be ordered to take immediate remedial steps.
Injuries claimed by the case’s named plaintiffs include: a fatal heart attack an inmate suffered after his complaints of chest pains and shortness of breath went unheeded for weeks; blindness, when another inmate’s diabetes went undiagnosed; liver failure caused by overmedication for a different health condition; inability to walk unassisted, when a gunshot wound an inmate suffered while being arrested went untreated. The ACLU also notes the suicide rate for Nebraska prisons is 30% higher than the national average for state prison systems, and Nebraska prisons have seen two riots over the past two years, in which four inmates were killed.
Governor Pete Ricketts (R) took sharp exception to the lawsuit, saying Nebraska had already committed to corrections reform, and, if successful, the ACLU suit would mean releasing dangerous inmates, jeopardizing public safety. The governor also contended other demands in the lawsuit – additional trained staff, better inmate screening for physical and mental problems, and changes in other policies – could endanger corrections officers by reducing their options for managing prisoners.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Nebraska prisons at the start of last year were on average operating at 157% of their rated capacity, housing over 5,200 inmates in facilities designed to hold only 3,275, giving Nebraska the nation’s fourth most-crowded prisons, after Alabama, Illinois, and Hawaii. The ACLU has also sued Alabama and Illinois, claimed unconstitutional overcrowding there.
The situation has since worsened, according to the Nebraska prison system’s inspector general, who reported that in mid-August this year, overcrowding had risen to about 162%, making Nebraska’s overcrowding second only to Alabama’s. Making matters comparatively worse, the level of overcrowding in Alabama had fallen by a minimum of nine percentage points; the state’s overcrowding had declined to 176%.
Although Nebraska in recent years has adopted some sentencing and parole reforms, these have not yet significantly lowered the state prison population. As a result, the Nebraska Department of Corrections has turned to stopgap responses, such as transferring some inmates from state prisons to county jails. Legislators have also debated farther-reaching changes, such as revising mandatory minimum sentencing laws – a step opposed by the state’s governor, attorney general, and prosecutors, who say it would endanger public safety.
The ACLU lawsuit draws on a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Plata) upholding a 9th Circuit decision ordering California to reduce its state prison population of 150,000 by at least 40,000, which would put it at 137.5% of the state system’s capacity. The ACLU had been threatening since early last year to bring a lawsuit against Nebraska along the lines of its August filing.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.