USA: Nebraska prison on lockdown, watchdog cites rising tensions

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s largest prison was on lockdown Thursday so officers could comb through the facility, searching for drugs, alcohol, cellphones and weapons that officials blame for feeding a surge of violent assaults on staff members.

Administrators said the search that began Wednesday was a “no holds barred” attempt to stop contraband from flowing into the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, but at least one state official expressed concern the effort could stoke even more anger among inmates following months of rising tensions.

Prison officials were holding all inmates in their cells and only allowing them out with a staff escort, with no set end date.

“There should be some concerns about what happens when they open the doors back up,” said Doug Koebernick, the inspector general for corrections. “My thought is if they need to do this, they should do it thoroughly but also swiftly.”

Koebernick issued a report last month that warned of “alarming” conditions at the state penitentiary due to persistent staffing shortages and record levels of staff overtime.

Koebernick said he has spoken with several inmates since the lockdown began who believe they’re being punished for the actions of a few people.

Koebernick said the inmates are upset because prison officials aren’t letting them shower and are restricting their access to supplies they need to clean their cells. He said prisoners aren’t getting their usual meals, and one inmate told Koebernick that he missed a chance to attend an anti-violence class he needs to qualify for parole.

The Nebraska State Penitentiary reported three incidents in which staff members were assaulted so far this month, said Laura Strimple, a corrections department spokeswoman. There were four such incidents in August, five in July, three each in June and May, and one in April.

The actual number of staff members who were assaulted is likely higher, however, because one reported incident can include multiple assaults at the same time. Koebernick said the numbers also don’t include inmate-on-inmate assaults or smaller infractions, such as spitting on a corrections officer.

Michele Wilhelm, the prison’s warden, said one staff member went to the hospital after being assaulted, and a few inmates were sent for outside treatment as well.

Scott Frakes, the correction department’s director, said the lockdown wasn’t the result of staffing problems in the prison. He said officials want to figure out where contraband is hidden and how it is being made or smuggled into the prison.

Prison officials recently found methamphetamine and homemade shanks in the penitentiary and have reported an increase in the synthetic drug K2. They also are dealing with cellphones which are used to make illicit contact with the outside world and coordinate gang activity.

“No matter if it’s K2, alcohol or other substances, staff members are dealing with inmates who are intoxicated and ore often confrontational when they are in that state,” Frakes said in a statement. “That, in addition to the homemade weapons that have been discovered, represents a serious compromise to facility safety.”

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