Solitary Confinement in Nebraska

FORWARD by Luis E. jimenez

Concerned citizens, Paul Feilmann and Tom Miller of Omaha, are on a mission to share information. They are retired professionals who have spent their careers in the human services and mental health field in Nebraska. Although they have no professional connection to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, they have spent the last year studying the current crisis in the Nebraska prison system.

In addition to their own research including review of all relevant corrections and legislative reports as well as multiple visits to prison facilities, interaction with inmates, corrections and legislative staff, they have consulted with state of Nebraska and ACLU experts with direct access to prison facilities including solitary confinement facilities.

Feilmann and Miller have volunteered at a local elementary school which has a high prevalence of poverty. During this volunteer effort they became aware of a significant occurrence of incarceration of some family members of the students.

This connection between students in poverty and family members that were incarcerated lead Feilmann and Miller to begin researching the current conditions of Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Feilmann and Miller could have been like most of us watching from the sidelines while our prison systems deteriorate. Imprisonment takes a toll on everyone, especially those behind bars and the financial burden of the Department of Correctional Services alone is $276 million. This is money from Nebraska taxpayers to maintain a prison system championed by the governor and funded through the legislature.

Feilmann told us that he recently had conversations with ex-Senator John Lindsay, who was on the judiciary committee 25 years ago. Mr. Lindsay explained that overcrowding was present 25 years ago at 157% capacity. This reflects a chronic lack of resources provided for rehabilitation of people that are incarcerated. “If you don’t provide rehabilitation resources for people to make changes in their lives they continue to make bad decisions and continue to be re-incarcerated, and it affects the entire community, family, their children, their children’s children. It’s a cycle that is self fueled. The risk of family members of an incarcerated individual going to prison themselves is very high,” he said.

Feilmann explained the connection between poverty and prison,”It feeds itself because when someone gets incarcerated, family members are then pushed closer to poverty or forced to stay in poverty because the parent figure is not able to provide for the family. It is also well known in the mental health field that loss of relationship with primary parent figure is a significant trauma in a child’s life. When they get out of prison, there are minimal reentry support services.” Statistics show that the states prison population is now about 5500, placing corrections system at 163% of capacity. Amid safety concerns, Feilmann asks, “Why doesn’t this change?”

Feilmann‘s research has revealed an extremely over crowded corrections system with minimal rehabilitation services and significant under staffing and over-worked staff. This condition has led to an overuse of 23 hour a day solitary confinement for an average daily population of nearly 400 individuals.

Here we highlight Feilmann’s engagement with the writing to his community concerning solitary confinement.

Dangers of Solitary Confinement

As shown in Omaha World Herald The Public Pulse March 17, 2019:

Legislative bill 739 proposes to severely restrict the placement of seriously mentally ill (and other vulnerable prisoner groups)in solitary confinement. The Nebraska Department of corrections use of solitary confinement for mentally ill residents was a major factor preceding the robbery-murders of four people in Omaha by Nikko Jenkins in 2013.

Jenkins was released directly into the community following four years in solitary confinement, during which he repeatedly requested mental health treatment and repeatedly warned that he would kill when released.

Following the legislative investigation into this tragedy, the investigative committee recommended that no solitary confinement be used with residents who have serious mental illness.

The committee report documented the significant number of seriously mentally ill residents in solitary confinement and the dangerously high number of prisoners who are released directly into Nebraska communities from solitary confinement.

Despite these recommendations, the Nebraska prison system has continued to use solitary confinement with seriously mentally ill residents.

Other states have nearly eliminated the overuse of solitary confinement and greatly restricted or no longer allow the release of prisoners directly from solitary confinement into the community.

These changes, recently noted in a Frontline/PBS documentary “Last Days Of Solitary” have resulted in greatly reduced costs and vastly improved staff and community safety.

“Last Days of Solitary” by Frontline/PBS

“Last Days of Solitary” by Frontline/PBS

The changes outlined in LB 739 must occur now or we risk continued preventable community tragedy.

Paul Feilmann, Omaha

Watch “Last Days of Solitary” on FRONTLINE at PBS:

Luis E. Jimenez - Civic Contributor

The forward was written by Luis E. Jimenez. He is the civic contributor in our NOISE team and regularly attends Omaha City Council meetings and follows Nebraska politics.

The Public Pulse piece was written by Paul Fielmann, a volunteer contributor for NOISE and a citizen activist.

Paul Fielmann with a family member.