By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – The former head of Nebraska’s prisons said Friday he was never forewarned about a prisoner’s threats to kill people after getting out of prison (which he did) and never told of a state Supreme Court decision clarifying how prison sentences should be calculated.
HOT SEAT: Former prisons director Bob Houston was subpoenaed to appear Friday before an investigatory legislative committee probing prison problems.
During three hours of questioning Friday morning before a special investigatory committee of lawmakers, Bob Houston largely professed ignorance about red flags Nikko Jenkins repeatedly raised before being released and killing four Omahans within weeks last year. And he also said he was never informed that a Supreme Court decision made it clear prisoners’ sentence were being calculated incorrectly, shortening sentences for some of the state’s most dangerous inmates.
Houston resigned from the job in September after a 38-year career, saying he left on his own accord because he felt he was becoming “a controversial public official.”
“I didn’t want that to happen,” he told lawmakers. “The governor didn’t need it, I didn’t need it. … It was time to go.”
The prison system was also under the microscope after Nikko Jenkins begged prison officials to get him mental treatment, vowed to kill and eat people upon his release, and then promptly killed four Omaha people. He had only served half of his 21-year sentence for two carjackings and assaults while imprisoned.
Lawmakers want to know how Jenkins was released despite his warnings and pleas, and why prison employees continued to miscalculate sentences, flying in the face of two Supreme Court rulings, including a 2013 ruling that attorney general and corrections employees debated and then ignored.
State law does not allow good time credit to be applied to the maximum portion of a sentence before the mandatory minimum sentence is served, but that’s how prison sentences were calculated for years, until the Omaha World-Herald exposed the error in June. Since then, the state has said 306 inmates were released early and 15 ex-prisoners were hauled back to prison to complete their sentences.
Houston was subpoenaed to appear before the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee, where he sat beside the attorney general’s chief deputy, David Cookson, who is representing Houston in a lawsuit against the state filed by one of Jenkins’s victims. Cookson’s dual roles led to some hand-wringing among lawmakers and gave Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers a chance to publicly reprimand Attorney General Jon Bruning for saying at one point he didn’t believe a crime had been committed in the sentencing screw-up.
Cookson noted Bruning said that before the results of an independent personnel investigation were in.
And while the prisons systems has appeared to be in disarray following Jenkins’ murderous rampage, the scandalous sentencing screw-up and chronic overcrowding, Houston calmly offered a different view. He acknowledged the crowded prisons and stresses created, but said they were safe.
And while committee chairman Steve Lathrop tried to ascertain why more prison beds weren’t added – as recommended by a 2006 report — and whether that was on the governor’s orders, Houston said prisons are “obscenely expensive to build” and so the population was being managed in other, less expensive ways.
In other words, Houston told the other side of the story.
Yes, more inmates were being moved out of prisons and onto the streets faster or into community facilities, but not nilly-willy.
Yes, Jenkins was turned loose after being in solitary confinement the last two years of his sentence, but no, mental health programming wasn’t scaled back as prisons swelled. Instead, the number of prisoners sent to community centers was doubled, to improve their chances of getting treatment.
While some see the Nebraska prison system as flailing, Houston said it “looks really good” when compared to the rest of the nation. Houston now teaches at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and is a federal monitor for the Los Angeles County Jail, the largest jail in the world.
“We’ve got an outstanding department of corrections,” he told lawmakers. “I know that we’ve been taking hits the last year. The resources we have match up with resources in other states. … We’re among the best in the country.”
Lathrop, who briefly considered a run for governor this year, took issue with that, saying “We have the ACLU breathing down our neck” on prison overcrowding and two committees studying prison problems.
Houston also reiterated his own concerns about the damage that can be done by solitary confinement, which he said is a national problem.
“It’s not good,” he said. “It’s not the most desirable way to do it, and it’s something as a country … we have to change. … We’ve got to figure out a better way to do it.”
As for Jenkins, Houston said “he was on my radar” last year after Sen. Chambers raised concerns about him going straight from solitary confinement to the streets in July.
He had assaulted a security guard after being released to attend his grandmother’s funeral in 2009. While prison officials have been criticized for only docking Jenkins 90 days of good time for the assault, Houston said he also had time added to his sentence and was sent to solitary confinement.
“That’s a lot to lose,” he said. “Living in prison is not easy for these guys. Things get tense, they do things they shouldn’t be doing. We have to be very measured in how we discipline the inmates because we’re keepers, we’re not catchers.”
But Houston acknowledged he’d never looked at Jenkins’ file or mental health records and was never told about Jenkins’ vows to kill people after getting out or requests to be committed to the Lincoln Regional Center. Houston said his job was to set in motion a discharge plan.
“Two thousand inmates were released that year. I wrote a memo on one, and that was Nikko Jenkins,” he testified.
He suggested hindsight is 20/20, saying lawmakers need to focus on what was known about Jenkins prior to his release, not the fact that he has since been convicted in four slayings.
“It’s a tremendous burden and task by our mental health staff to sift thru 2,000 people and determine which ones of those rise to the level… that needs to be referred to a mental health board,” he said.
As for the prison sentencing screw-up, Houston was not director of prisons when the 2002 Supreme Court decision came out, and wasn’t informed of the 2013 Supreme Court decision, which his employees appear to have debated and then ignored.
When Houston tried to duck a question about whether he should have been informed of the Supreme Court decision, Lathrop said, “I think I’m entitled to have the answers.” Houston said that case was focused on a judge’s sentencing mistake. In that case, Omaha gang member David Castillas, convicted in two drive-by shootings, appealed his convictions and sentences. But the prisons system also erroneously set his release date 12.5 years early.
Then after the Supreme Court clarified how the sentence should be calculated, employees in the attorney general’s office and prison system debated whether they should start recalculating sentences correctly or keep doing it the way they had been for years, according to emails released to by the attorney general’s office in response to open records requests.
Lathrop asked Houston about one email in which former corrections records manager Jeannene Douglass said it would be best to continue calculating sentences the wrong way, in part because it would serve Houston’s desires not to increase the prison population.
Houston said prison employees were all well aware of overcrowding problems.
“It’s an every day, every hour concern by the people that work in the department of correctional services,” he said.
Houston’s testimony was to resume Friday afternoon.
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