It has been threatened for years, and it has finally come about. The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Nebraska inmates in U.S. District Court, alleging that overcrowding in the state’s prisons has led to unsafe conditions and that many prisoners aren’t having medical conditions treated.
The state has known such a lawsuit could happen and has tried to take measures to lessen crowding, but they have had little impact.
The ACLU’s 87-page lawsuit says “extreme” overcrowding is causing “needless suffering and death” of inmates. Staff also are facing unsafe conditions, it alleges.
The numbers seem to back the lawsuit’s claims. Last week, Nebraska’s prisons held 5,217 inmates. That is 160 percent of their capacity of 3,275.
The Omaha World-Herald reported that one state prison in Lincoln holds three times its capacity. It said dozens of inmates are forced to sleep on temporary plastic cots.
So the ACLU’s concerns are valid. However, since 2015 Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Legislature have been trying to address the issue. This comes after Gov. Dave Heineman and his administration ignored the problem for the 10 years he was in office.
State officials have worked to reduce overcrowding through sentencing and parole reforms, but no significant reductions have been seen.
The Legislature authorized spending $26 million for an expansion of the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln. A new 100-bed modular dormitory will soon open there. Also, $75 million has been set aside for an addition for elderly and mentally ill inmates.
In addition, the state has been sending some inmates to county jails, such as the one in Hall County, through contracted arrangements.
So Ricketts and state senators have been making strides, just not enough to satisfy the ACLU.
It is hoped that the state and the ACLU can continue discussions on ways to reduce Nebraska’s prison population. State government taking measures is much better than having a federal court force specific actions.
A court decision could result in the early release of some prisoners to relieve overcrowding. This, though, could put public safety at risk if some dangerous prisoners are released before serving out their sentences.
Ricketts has called the lawsuit a threat to public safety. Dangerous criminals could be released, he said. Also, the courts could limit steps that the state could take to manage inmates.
“Over the past few years, all three branches of state government have made justice reinvestment and corrections reform a top priority,” he said in a statement. “Together, we have invested millions of taxpayer dollars to protect public safety and expand state prisons.”
While the ACLU’s frustration is understandable, the best approach would be to give state officials, who are now taking the problem seriously, more time to find solutions.