Advocates Rex Walton and Paul Feilmann hold a sign outside of the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

Public health officials have warned of the danger of COVID-19 spreading in jails and prisons. In Nebraska, the virus has taken a bad situation - chronic overcrowding and understaffing in our prison facilities - and created potential for it to become much worse.

What You Need to Know

States have a constitutional duty to protect people who are incarcerated from unreasonable risk presented by infectious diseases. To limit the threat of COVID-19, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr and the governors of a number of states - including Iowa - have taken emergency action to reduce prison populations.

So far, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has rejected calls to do the same, relying on the same political talking points about public safety that caused the overcrowding in the first place.

The numbers are staggering. Nebraska prisons are at nearly 160% of design capacity with primary facilities at nearly 200%. Diagnostic and Evaluation holds three times the number of people it was designed for. At the same time, about 40% of people held there are there because of non-violent crimes. About 800 people who are currently incarcerated are already parole eligible, but being denied release because they have not completed programming Nebraska's Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) has not made available to them.

COVID-19 or not, the clock is ticking for action. On July 1, state law requires Gov. Ricketts to declare an overcrowding emergency, a move that is meant to begin the process of reducing the prison population to 140% of design capacity.

In contrast with the state's slow response, some positive action is happening at the county level. In March, the Douglas County Jail's population dropped by about 200 people even as reported crimes stayed constant.

What the ACLU is Doing

  • With our partners, we are leading a federal lawsuit related to how prison overcrowding has deprived Nebraskans of their right to basic medical care and disability accommodations.

  • We filed an emergency motion to try to force NDCS to provide its pandemic plan and facility-specific quarantine plans. The request was ruled beyond the scope of our original lawsuit - but the motion did force NDCS to provide a more complete description of their COVID-19 strategy.

  • We are calling on Gov. Ricketts, the Board of Pardons and the Board of Parole to limit the risk of COVID-19 by reducing overcrowding, starting with those nearest to parole eligibility and those most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or health condition.
  • We have sent guidance to state leaders, prison officials and those working in juvenile justice to ensure their response is grounded in public health.

What You Can Do

Thank you for defending the rights of our friends, family and neighbors who are incarcerated. We the People means all of us.

  • Call or email your local TV, radio and newspaper outlets. Thank them for their coverage and ask if they have been covering the danger of COVID-19 spreading in our jails and prisons. Write a letter to the editor in your local newspaper. We have contact information and helpful tips on our website.

  • Contact Nebraska's Board of Parole (People Power calling script here) and ask them to adjust review protocol in response to COVID-19. This should include waiving programming requirements when programming is limited or unavailable. A contact form and number are available on the board's website.
  • Tell Gov. Ricketts the current prison overcrowding was unacceptable even before the outbreak and that you support reducing prison overcrowding to protect people in our prisons and our communities. Contact information is available online.
  • Ask your local sheriff or jail warden how they plan to protect people in their jails. Thank them if the plan includes efforts to reduce the jail population. 
  • We need all hands on deck. City and county prosecutors, local judges, public defenders, and state policymakers all have an important role in the criminal justice system and a heightened need to work together swiftly to decarcerate Nebraska prisons and jails. Call or email your city or county attorney and ask them to share the work they've been taking on this front. Ask your state senator to explore effective decarceration strategies when they go back to session. Find tips on contacting elected officials on our website.

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