LINCOLN – This week the ACLU of Nebraska warned senators that the organization is prepared to file a lawsuit if prison conditions are not improved. On Tuesday, the organization launched a report on problems within Nebraska's prison system that could constitute Eighth Amendment violations. ACLU attorneys received complaints and conducted interviews at multiple prisons in Nebraska and have found areas where prisons may not be meeting basic standards for health and safety. ACLU of Nebraska is prepared to file lawsuits against the state of Nebraska if the concerns outlined in the report are not properly addressed.
"The Unicameral is currently debating bills that could potentially reduce prison overcrowding and prevent Nebraska from being forced to build another prison," said ACLU of Nebraska Staff Attorney Joel Donahue who authored the report. "While this debate goes on, however, our prisons remain at over 155% capacity and the inmates are living in conditions that could be found by a court to be unconstitutional."
Several prisons across the state are on 24-hour lockdown due to overcrowding. According to the Supreme Court, the Eighth Amendment's standards of basic human decency apply to how states treat prisoners, and conditions that "alone or in combination...deprive inmates of the minimal civilized measures of life's necessities" are barred by this contemporary standard of decency.ACLU of Nebraska's report identifies six areas where Nebraska prisons could be sued on Eighth Amendment grounds:
- Substandard Healthcare - ACLU of Nebraska's most commonly received complaints from inmates involve a lack of physical and mental health care in Nebraska's prison system. Reports indicate it can take months for health concerns to be acknowledged by prison officials, and the care received is often described as cursory and inadequate.
- Housing Mentally Ill Inmates in Segregation - Courts across the nation have found that housing inmates with mental illnesses in segregation violates the Eighth Amendment. ACLU of Nebraska has estimated that mentally ill inmates comprise a majority of the population in segregation. One interviewee in segregation told the ACLU that he was seen by a mental health professional only once in an eighteen-month period, with the visit only lasting a few short minutes.
- Violent Incidents Among Inmates –The ACLU has discovered that there are at least one to two fights per week in the sleeping bays at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, with only one to two per month being broken up by guards. Several inmates have also reported being denied protective custody.
- Lack of Exercise – Ordinarily, any inmate that is confined to their cell for more than sixteen hours per day must be given one hour each day outside of their cell for exercise. Due to the lockdown, prisoners are spending the majority of the day locked in their cells, and prisoners with jobs are being denied their daily exercise.
- Excessive Noise – Noise levels can be considered cruel and unusual if they result in hearing loss or mental distress. ACLU of Nebraska has received enough reports to conclude that noise levels in the State Penitentiary and Tecumseh are loud enough to result in hearing loss. Additionally, inmates in segregation have described having to stuff paper in their ears to avoid the screaming of the mentally ill inmates housed in segregation.
- Inadequate Ventilation – Lack of proper ventilation can become a constitutional issue when lack of airflow leads to foul odors, stale air, or mold growth. ACLU has received copies of grievances in which prison officials describe the airflow at NSP as being roughly 10% of what the ACA standards require. Inmates describe mold growth and a persistent smell that varies between "outhouse" and "gym locker."
"In addition to being unconstitutional, these practices are a waste of taxpayer dollars and fail to do anything for public safety," said Legal Director Amy Miller. "The public should expect a system that makes it less likely that there will be repeat offenses and that those who have been convicted of a crime will become a better person. Our legislature has before it a bill that would not only prevent a lawsuit, but be an investment in a better system, a smarter system that uses taxpayer dollars responsibly while increasing public safety."
One individual interviewed by the ACLU is Patrick Burke in the Nebraska State Correctional Facility in Lincoln. Over the past 18 months Burke's health has declined and he has been denied access to religious services such as Christmas and Ash Wednesday. Support groups for veterans with PTSD have also stopped meeting or have drastically reduced their meeting schedule. Burke has maintained a job while in the penitentiary and often has to choose between his job, exercise or a religious service.
The current legislative proposal, LB999, has advanced from the Judiciary Committee and is awaiting debate on the floor of the legislature. The bill was introduced by Senator Brad Ashford of Omaha.
For more of Patrick Burke’s story: http://www.aclunebraska.org/index.php/prisoner-rights/193-patrick-denied-the-opportunity-to-improve