Nebraska State Penitentiary. Image taken from Google Maps.
Nebraska State Penitentiary. Image taken from Google Maps.

Bob Wiley knows how it sounds — to say it’s inevitable the novel coronavirus could spread quickly and fatally in Nebraska’s prisons sounds grave. But the 45-year-old has fresh knowledge of these facilities, having just been released January 31 after spending 18 months incarcerated.

It’s impossible, he said, to social distance if you live in a room designed for 16 that actually holds 50 or stay germ-free, especially without hand sanitizer.

“I know that sounds dramatic,” he said. “It’s not like they’re running across a field with live bullets being fired. But if it gets in there, shoot, it’s a coin flip.”

As the novel coronavirus spreads across nearly every community in America, advocates say there’s a dire need to protect one of Nebraska’s most vulnerable populations — incarcerated people.

At the end of last year, more than 5,600 inmates were held across 10 facilities where the use of hand sanitizer is forbidden and advocates say social distancing is an impossibility. The setting for those issues is one of the most overcrowded prison systems in America, which had existing roadblocks to health care access before a pandemic struck. Now many advocates say those issues will leave inmates defenseless against a grim reality.

“If it sweeps through corrections,” said Rick Carter, program manager for the Community Justice Center in Lincoln, “there are a lot of people that are going to face the ultimate consequence just because they’re incarcerated.”

On April 4, a worker at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln tested positive for the virus and has since quarantined. There are no confirmed cases among inmates.

Since then the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has implemented some health measures, including providing prisoners and correctional workers face masks as well as eliminating visitation. They’ve also set up quarantine zones, increased surface disinfection and started taking the temperature of all staff, contractors and others coming and leaving the prison.

NDCS spokesperson Laura Strimple said wardens have taken a variety of steps to encourage social distancing from limiting groups to under 10 people to staggering meal times to avoid crowds in dining halls.

“Social distancing in a prison is not unlike social distancing in a nursing home, a hospital or any other location where you have a population of individuals who are housed together with roommates or are otherwise in close proximity to each other,” Strimple wrote in an emailed response.

On Friday April 10, NDCS Director Scott Frakes also said prisoners had adequate access to health care with 200 medical staff and 130 mental health staff available.

Governor Pete Ricketts has called the effort to release some inmates, which many states, including Iowa, have committed to, a political move.

“Let me be very clear: No matter how often advocacy groups call for premature releases, we are not going to let inmates out of prison early in Nebraska,” he said in an April 10 press release.

The decision comes as NDCS not only faces the threat of coronavirus, but an impending deadline that Ricketts declare an emergency on prison overcrowding by July 1.

Nebraska’s prisons are one of the most crowded in the country, averaging about 160% capacity, with one facility as high as 340% capacity. Nationally, prisons and jails were found to be some of the top transmitters of coronavirus, according to a New York Times analysis.

“It’s already at a point to no matter what the governor does, it won’t meet the urgency of the moment if releasing prisoners isn’t included,” said Sam Petto, communications director with the ACLU of Nebraska.

The ACLU of Nebraska filed an emergency motion in an existing federal lawsuit alleging the system “deprive[s] NDCS prisoners of constitutionally adequate medical, dental, and mental health care.” The emergency motion would require NDCS to release its plan to manage an outbreak of coronavirus.

In addition to setting up quarantine zones the prison has isolated vulnerable populations. Those plans are part of a private document drafted by the agency, Strimple said.

The lack of transparency troubles Dominique Morgan, executive director of the national prison reform group Black and Pink, which advocates especially for LGBTQIA+ and HIV-positive inmates.

Their organization demanded NDCS make that response plan public in March. Morgan said their and other organizations that signed on to that petition did not receive a response.

“The lack of leadership is frightening,” they said.

The petition also called for releasing inmates. Carter said unlike other advocates he would rather see increased action from the State of Nebraska Board of Pardons as well as the state’s Board of Parole. There are many candidates for parole, such as those already on work release. The only difference between them and citizens, he said, is that work-release prisoners wear ankle monitors and sleep in prison.

Morgan also said the state needs to increase communication between prisoners and their families. In response to coronavirus and eliminated visitation, the state provided inmates two free five-minute phone calls a week. However, prisoners still need to pay for videos and calls after that.

Advocates also want inmates to have access to the hand sanitizer they’re making.

Inmates at Cornhusker Industries have produced more than 2,500 gallons of hand sanitizer, none of which they can use. The product instead goes to staff and then is shipped out to facilities around the state.

“Alcohol-based products are dangerous,” NDCS said in a March 23 press release. “Not only are they potentially flammable, but they could pose adverse health effects if consumed.”

Instead, NDCS has handed out bars of soap. Carter understands there’s rules in place about the alcohol-based product but said he sees its benefit far outweighing the cost.

“If hand sanitizer can save lives, am I willing to save lives versus a couple of guys making hooch out of hand sanitizer?” Carter said. “I think we need to pick our battles.”

Every advocate The Reader spoke to also said this is a time to show inmates human compassion.

Wiley, who was convicted for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person in April 2019, said he’s not trying to get Nebraskans to excuse people for the crimes they committed, but this is a health emergency.

Many inmates are older or have pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes. Many are also non-violent criminals serving time on drug offenses. He doesn’t want to see them die.

“I think the compassion needs to fall on the shoulders of some of the people in Nebraska,” he said. “Because they have a voice.”

Morgan said they also hope people can do the bare minimum and see prisoners for what they are — human beings. All around him are stories of people supporting local businesses, health care workers and every other corner of the community as it struggles through these unprecedented times.

Morgan hopes Nebraskans don’t forget prisoners are part of that community.

“People deserve to be safe,” they said. “People deserve to feel like they’re going to make it through this.”

Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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