OMAHA, Neb. - A coalition of legal partners fighting to protect the rights of people incarcerated in Nebraska’s overcrowded corrections system argued for class certification on Monday, Jan. 13 – seeking to represent the almost 5,500 people currently incarcerated in the state’s prisons and all those who will be incarcerated in the future.
Oral arguments in the federal civil rights lawsuit lasted roughly five hours in Omaha’s Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse before U.S. District Judge Brian Buescher.
The class certification request for Sabata v. Frakes argues that systemwide policies and practices deprive Nebraskans who are incarcerated of critical medical, mental health, and dental care, inflict serious harm through prolonged isolation, and discriminate against people with disabilities – violating the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. These problems are caused and compounded by chronic overcrowding and understaffing.
The impact is pervasive and severe. Examples include a woman denied cancer treatment for five months; a man who died of suicide after requesting psychiatric care that he did not receive; people who mentally deteriorated to the point of eating their own waste while in solitary confinement; and a severe lack of programs and facilities to serve the roughly 750 people with disabilities in Nebraska’s correctional facilities.
"The extreme overcrowding and chronic understaffing in Nebraska prisons have resulted in dehumanizing conditions that put the health and safety of everyone in them — incarcerated people and staff alike — at risk,” said David Fathi, lead counsel on the case and director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “The state has proven unable or unwilling to address these issues itself. We are forced to litigate to ensure that these horrendous conditions are addressed and the state comes into compliance with its constitutional and moral obligations.”
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said disturbing individual stories add up to a systemic failure.
“For years, Nebraskans have read story after story on this overcrowding crisis and the pace of reform has been glacial at best,” Conrad said. “We need real action. This lawsuit is about mass incarceration, racial justice and disability rights. Most Nebraskans who are incarcerated will one day be back in our communities – and the reforms we’re fighting for will ensure better public safety outcomes.”
Partners include the ACLU of Nebraska, the ACLU National Prison Project, Nebraska Appleseed, the National Association of the Deaf, and the law firms DLA Piper and Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, which successfully argued a historic extreme prison overcrowding case before the Supreme Court.
In addition to overall class certification, the team also asked for certification of two subclasses – one representing all prisoners put in solitary confinement and another on behalf of prisoners with disabilities. A grant of class certification to either subclass or the case as a whole would expand the possible impact of the case’s eventual resolution.
Nebraska has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the nation. The hearing comes as the state counts down to a legally mandated declaration of a prison overcrowding emergency on July 1. This may trigger the release of up to 1,100 incarcerated people, bringing the system down to 140 percent of capacity. As of the Department of Correctional Services’ latest report, facilities averaged at nearly 5,500 occupants – 155 percent of design capacity. One facility is at more than 300 percent of design capacity.
Nebraska’s criminal justice system continues to have a disproportionate impact on people of color and those with a mental health diagnosis.
- Currently, more than one in four Nebraskans who are incarcerated are Black, even though just 5 percent of Nebraskans are Black.
- Native American adults are imprisoned at a rate nine times higher than white adults in Nebraska.
- According to a 2015 analysis, people with mental health and substance abuse disorders made up 82 percent of the Nebraska prison population.
Learn more: ACLU Blueprint for Smart Justice