Prisons committee calls for firings of employees and major reform

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – A legislative committee investigating several corrections scandals called the release of murderer Nikko Jenkins a “colossal failure” of the state corrections system that appeared to be the result of a “turf war” in which corrections psychologists were trying to discredit the opinions of contract psychiatrists.

REPORT: A special investigatory prisons committee released its report and recommendations Monday.

The committee recommended that Corrections Director Mike Kenney not be retained by Governor-elect Pete Ricketts (who is conducting a national search for a new director) and that three corrections employees be terminated: records manager Kyle Poppert, Dr. Mark Weilage, a psychologist and Assistant Behavioral Health Administrator for corrections, and deputy corrections director Larry Wayne.

The special investigative committee recommended Ricketts look for a reform-minded director willing to implement its recommendations, as well as those of the Council of State Governments, and overhaul the state’s prison segregation system. They also recommended a top-down review of all corrections employees to determine whether they’re qualified for their jobs.

The committee delved into the Jenkins case and several other prison scandals, and released its findings and recommendations in a report Monday.

Jenkins spent 60 percent of his 10 years in prison in solitary confinement (23 hours per day), where he exhibited bizarre behavior like drinking his own urine, snorting his semen, writing in his blood on walls and threatening to mutilate and kill people if released. He begged to be civilly committed to the state psychiatric center, but was released with little programming or mental health treatment, and killed four Omahans within 10 days.

The committee said while ultimately, Jenkins is responsible for killing four people, the corrections department “set the stage” for his murderous rampage by locking him in solitary confinement for six out of his 10.5 years in prison with virtually no treatment – exacerbating his mental problems — and withholding a report that likely would have led to his civil commitment.

The committee concluded the Jenkins case documents “a total failure of leadership and a textbook example of the administration of state government at its worst.”

Jenkins weaved in and out of the criminal justice system from age 7, when he was placed in foster care. In 2003, he was sentenced to 18 to 21 years in prison. But the state’s automatic “good time” law cut that sentence by 10.5 years. Jenkins lost 525 days of good time due to rioting, tattooing and assaults.

The committee concluded Dr. Weilage breached his professional duty and prevented the civil commitment of Jenkins to the state psychiatric center by withholding a report, even though he was aware of Jenkins’ bizarre behavior and threats to kill people. The report said Weilage’s actions “directly resulted in the tragic death of four individuals in Omaha.”

“The simplest explanation is that there was a turf war at the Department of Correctional Services which had tragic consequences,” the report said. “The NCDS staff psychologists at (Tecumsah) seemed determined to discredit the opinions of Dr. Eugene Oliveto and Dr. Natalie Baker, both contract psychiatrists.”

The committee said it’s possible the corrections department didn’t want Jenkins committed to the Lincoln Regional Center because it wasn’t equipped to safely house and treat Jenkins.

The committee said programming and mental health treatment for inmates are “wholly inadequate” and recommended more examination of the availability of mental health care and development of a secure, state-of-the-art facility for the dangerously mentally ill.

The committee concluded that the corrections department created a furlough program to ease prison overcrowding, and it was created illegally because officials didn’t follow the process set out in law.

They recommended the program be abandoned and recreated through the Legislature.

And they said the pressure put on the state parole board to parole more people was potentially dangerous.

“The pressure to alleviate overcrowding through ‘no cost options’ began in the governor’s office and was felt throughout the administration down to the level of a records manager,” the report said. “In many ways, the decision to employ no cost options was a failure of leadership.”

The governor can declare an emergency when the prison population surpasses 140 percent of capacity, allowing the parole board to parole more prisoners. But that would be a very public process, and instead, the Heineman administration chose “working in the shadows” and pressuring corrections and parole officials, the report said.

“All while maintaining that overcrowding was not influencing decisions,” the report said. “The findings of this committee suggest otherwise.”

Among the committee’s recommendations:

• Abolish the furlough program it believes was illegally created and perhaps recreate it through the Legislature. Then have the Legislative Research Office determine which administrative regulations were promulgated in violation of state law.

• Establish an Office of Inspector General for corrections to conduct audits, inspections and reviews.

• Amend the law to require the governor to declare an emergency when the population exceeds 140 percent of capacity.

• Steps be taken to ensure the parole board’s independence, including removing the board’s offices from the corrections department building and giving the board its own attorney.

• Allow the parole board to develop criteria for furlough programs.

• Consider privatizing mental health care inside the corrections system.

• Consider developing a computer program to calculate inmate sentences, their parole-eligibility date, and their tentative release date. By one estimate, this could cost $12 million.

• Lawmakers set standards for which inmates can be placed in segregation and, perhaps the length of time they can held there.

• Require that the prison system to provide meaningful mental
health services and adequate programming to inmates in segregation.

• Establish a separate facility or portion of a facility for inmates in long-term protective custody who are not being separated from others in protective custody.

• Stop releasing inmates directly from segregation (not including protective custody) to the general public under nearly any circumstance, with the
possible exception of an inmate that has been exonerated.

• Examine whether the definition of “mentally ill” warrants an amendment to comport with current diagnostic practices.

The committee said its job was to do a “candid and blunt report” about the dysfunction in corrections and “the governor’s role in the specific problems examined.”

“This report is not intended to embarrass the administration or any employee or former employee of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Rather, the report provides a candid assessment as a starting point for reforms that must be undertaken to restore the public’s confidence in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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