"It's Scary." Nebraska Prison Staff Share Fears of Violence

Sept. 23, 2021, 8 p.m. ·

Corrections employees line up to testify before Nebraska State Senators.
At a September 2021 hearing, prison employees line up to testify about understaffing issues. (Photo by Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)

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“Inmate Collins delivers a closed fist punch to Caseworker Akot, knocking him to the ground.”

The written summary of the Nebraska penitentiary security video recorded in February 2020 remains professional and without emotion on paper, but the Sargent assigned to watch it must have been shocked.

“Inmate Collins then gets in full mount position on top of Caseworker Akot… delivers 33 closed fist strikes to head and face.”

Inmate Joshua Collins
Inmate Joshua Collins (center) is shown among reports document his assault on two prison employees.

The narrative comes from a confidential disciplinary misconduct report filed after the assault on Santino Akot by inmate Joshua Collins at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

The surveillance video reportedly shows Collins getting up off of Akot's motionless body, pacing, puffing his chest and attempting to “incite other inmates” in the area. Returning to Akot, the inmate next removes the caseworker’s canister of crowd-control pepper spray and empties the canister in the helpless man’s face.

Collins again attacks when another prison employee arrives to help Akot, striking the case manager repeatedly before guards rush in to restrain the inmate and take him away.

This account is one of several documents and witness statements filed after the attack. An individual familiar with the case, who requested anonymity, provided the reports to Nebraska Public Media News. The individual felt sharing a detailed account of a prison staff assault illustrates dangers faced daily by workers in the state’s over-crowded, under-staffed prisons.

The number of prison employees victimized by violence on the job since 2019 is not known. The Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) did not respond to a request from Nebraska Public Media News for up-to-date data on prison assaults.

NDCS FY2018 Staff Assault Chart
A chart from the 2018 Annual Report of the Department of Correctional Services was the last public reporting of prison staff assaults.

NDCS does not provide those reports to the state legislature, as required by law. The last public release of that information was in 2018, when they reported progress in reducing violence.

The fear of violence on the job was a common theme during a special hearing of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee on September 15. NDCS had recently declared a staffing emergency, extending the hours of many employees staffing the largest lock-ups to compensate for a large number of unfilled positions.

Over 40 current and past NDCS employees spoke to committee members for over six hours.

“It's dangerous. It's scary. And I routinely put people into positions where they end up being assaulted,” said Jeff Seeley, a lieutenant at the prison in Tecumseh. He testified there are consequences when staff defections increase while the inmate population exceeds the prisons' capacity.

“I worry I'm going to post somebody to a position where that might be their last day. Time and time again, throughout history, increases in overcrowding and decreases in staff have always led to violence and have always led to death.”

Seeley added, “we have to do something about it.”

The safety concerns raised by employees at the moderate and lower security correctional centers raised eyebrows on the committee. A greater number of high-risk prisoners are being detained at the Lincoln and Omaha facilities while staffing levels have dropped.

Working as an officer in admissions at Lincoln’s Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, Alfred Jacob told the committee, "it's not a very safe environment that we are monitoring.”

He detailed how inmates are more agitated lately because staff shortages limited family visitations and reduced the time prisoners are allowed outside their cells.

He pointed out that as a result of the under-staffing, "we have a lot of individuals who are just locked up for 24 hours in a room. Some are lucky to have a chance to take a shower,” Jacob testified.

“All these things have an effect. Now you have a mental health issue crisis brewing up because being stuck in that room for 24 hours not being able to shower, not able to breathe, or not able to engage with other individuals.”

Mark Lehmkuhl, a corporal at the same facility, told the senators he believes inmates have taken advantage of staffing shortages by circulating illegal contraband. “These inmates know what's going on,” Lehmkuhl said. “They're not stupid.”

Drugs smuggled into the Lincoln Penitentiary may have played a role in last year’s assault on Santino Akot. The investigation files we examined included a guard’s report that inmate Joshua Collins said he had methamphetamine.

An inmate statement report filled out by guards claimed an aggravated Collins stated, "He shouldn't of took from me! The meth was in my pocket. The meth is all gone." Then the guard notes Collins was "unable to sign" the statement.

Statement of Joshua Collins included in report on staff assaults.
A corrections officer transcribed the statement made by Collins at the time of the assault.

Street drugs in prison are no surprise to Tony Turek, a corporal working at the corrections diagnostic center. He testified there is a "huge uprise" in the drugs available in Nebraska's prisons.

“(They) are way more prevalent than I've seen in the 12 years since I started. Tobacco was like our biggest contraband 12 years ago. Now you don't even see tobacco anymore. It's meth, cocaine, K-2.”

A sergeant assigned to the Omaha Correctional Center, Justin Spackman, said, "inmates are high daily" After escorting them out of their cells, "they get seen by medical, and they get released back to their cell block."

In addition to drugs, staff members spoke of finding cell phones and improvised weapons regularly.

“We've had people that get stuff into the units, and we're still trying to figure out how the hell they're getting it in there,” Lehmkuhl said. “If we were adequately staffed, we could stop it.”

The usual checkpoints where employees or visitors get checked for contraband have been inadequate, according to Corporal Mary Howard. “We've had to rely on a lot of our housing staff, case managers, and unit managers to fill in for security posts that they don't know that much about because their housing staff.”

Nebraska State Legislature Judiciary Committee in special session.
Nebraska State Senators hear testimony from prison employees. (Photo by Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)

Howard said she had been “pulled from my posts which jeopardizes the safety and security of the institution.”

The senators also heard fears from Spackman that tensions between inmates over contraband are a red flag for potential violence.

“Because of the drug problem, we have a lot of inmates requesting protective custody because they're getting their drugs on loan and can't pay off (the prison dealer). The prisoners "want to get off the yard in case something's going to happen.”

During testimony, nearly every correctional staff member referred to their close working relationship with fellow employees on the job.

“We have some excellent people,” said Lehmkuhl. “We all be thanking God every time we go to bed that we haven't had an issue that's gotten totally out of control.”

Joshua Collins, the inmate who attacked two staff members last year, recently added fifty years to his prison sentence. In April, he pleaded guilty to two counts of assault. Formerly housed in the Lincoln Penitentiary, Collins is now the staff's responsibility at the Lincoln Correctional Center.

A report from a witness to the 2020 assault of two Nebraska penitentiary staff members.
A report from a witness to the 2020 assault of two Nebraska penitentiary staff members.