Solitary confinement, tax incentives to be studied; med marijuana stalled

March 24, 2015, 5:38 a.m. ·

(Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The new director of Nebraska’s Department of Correctional Services says he hopes to reduce the number of inmates in restrictive housing by half over the next couple of years. And lawmakers are moving ahead with a study of whether the state’s business tax incentives are worthwhile.

Scott Frakes has been on the job as head of Nebraska’s prison system for a month and a half. In his first interview, Frakes told NET News he wants to reduce the number of prisoners held in isolation from others. "Today, roughly 700 inmates are held in some form of segregation, out of a population of 5300. So that is a pretty significant ratio. I would want to see that number – a couple of years from now – I would hope to see that number at least halved, if not less," Frakes said.

Often called segregation, restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, the practice of isolating inmates from the general prison population gained attention last year during a legislative investigation. That investigation started in the aftermath of a murderous spree by Nikko Jenkins, an inmate released from prison in 2013.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, who served on the investigative committee, said the committee found segregation was being "heavily used" in the Nebraska system. "Nikko Jenkins, for example, spent time in Douglas County facilities and the state facilities. He was able to be managed in the general population in Douglas County, but immediately upon being returned to Lincoln was put back into solitary situations where he had actually spent about 6 out of 10 years of his time," Schumacher said.

Jenkins was convicted of killing four people in Omaha after he was released from prison directly from solitary confinement.

The discussion comes as the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services was selected as one of five departments across the country selected by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice for a "Safe Alternatives to Segregation" study.

The Institute said segregated housing for prisoners was intended to isolate inmates deemed to threaten the safety and security of facilities. But over the past three decades, it’s been increasingly used to punish disruptive but nonviolent behavior, protect vulnerable inmates, or temporarily house inmates before transfer.

The Institute said evidence suggests segregation affects inmates negatively and can be far more expensive than general housing. And The Vera Institute’s Christine Herrman said there are alternatives. "Each state is a little bit different. But we tend to identify ways to divert people from segregation for just disciplinary infractions. So maybe instead of going to segregation for not tucking your shirt in, you get basically locked in your cell for the day. Or you lose some of your privileges with the commissary," she said.

Frakes worked with the Vera Institute in Washington State, where he served before coming to Nebraska, and said he found some of the measures they talked about to be very effective. And he said improving the use of restricted housing will help the prison system as a whole. "By doing this work and focusing here in the people that probably have the least control over their lives within a prison system … those that are held in segregation, restrictive housing.. if we develop and implement and demonstrate quality of services that are as good as they can be at that level and with that piece of the population, for me then the rest of the work can only get better," he said.

The study of alternatives to segregation is expected to take 14 months, and then it will be up to the state to decide whether to implement the recommendations.

Meanwhile, the Legislature gave first round approval to a performance audit of the state’s business tax incentive programs. Those programs offer sales and income tax breaks to companies for investing and creating jobs, but a recent study found their goals were too broad to be able to evaluate whether they were working.

The performance audit will evaluate whether the programs are achieving the goal of improving the state’s economy, as well as evaluating their fiscal impact. Grand Island Sen. Mike Gloor said people should take the programs into account when they talk about Nebraska taxes. And he said those programs will be evaluated under the legislation, LB538 "When people claim that we are one of the worst in the nation, or towards the back of the pack or the middle of the pack, that’s not necessarily true for specific businesses or industries because of programs or industries that are covered under LB538," he said.

A report last year found through 2013, nearly $6 billion in investments and 13,000 jobs had been created or promised under the largest tax incentive program, the Nebraska Advantage Act. The report projected companies will have more than $1 billion in tax breaks available to use by 2018.

The legislation would say no companies could apply for new benefits under the program after 2017, and a study on it should be completed by the end of 2016, so the legislature can decide what to do after that. It got first round approval on a vote of 37-0.

And, the Judiciary Committee voted to advance a proposal by Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford allowing medical research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center on cannabis oil. The committee is still holding a much broader proposal by Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett to legalize medical marijuana.

Garrett has submitted an amendment some committee members said they haven’t had time to read. And Committee Chairman Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings questioned whether the Department of Health and Human Services has the capability to oversee dispensaries, as envisioned by the bill.