This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.

The chemical smell of disinfectant lingers while the linoleum floors reflect the dull glow of vending machines stocked with pineapple Fanta, XXL and microwavable burritos. The space feels like a YMCA rec room (minus the ping pong tables), but the men sitting in blue plastic chairs only have to look up to remind themselves where they are.

“THIS FACILITY IS UNDER 24-HOUR LIVE/RECORDED VIDEO AND/OR AUDIO SURVEILLANCE,” a red sign spells out underneath one of the six fisheye security mirrors.

It’s the kind of place the men, inmates at the Omaha Correctional Center, never want to come back to — and they’re here to learn how.

“If I can get to the end,” said Shakur Abdullah, a former inmate leading a program on July 11, “you can, too.”

Abdullah is a trainer with the Community Justice Center, a nonprofit based in Lincoln that teaches restorative justice, a technique that encourages reconciliation and helps offenders  avoid repeating their mistakes — an urgent mission for Nebraska.

Shakur Abdullah speaks to participants of a Community Justice Center program. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Thirty percent of inmates released in 2018 ended up back in prison by 2020, up four percentage points from a decade earlier. And that’s not all that’s gotten worse. Nebraska has the second-most overcrowded prison system in the nation. And it is one of only four states whose prisoner population has increased in the past decade compared to an 11% decline nationally. Meanwhile, the system is dealing with staff shortages.

Nebraska has had repeated chances to stop the trend but suffered political standstills in the Nebraska Legislature over issues such as sentencing reforms. Some efforts, like a new $15 million state grant program to fund reentry efforts (open for application until Aug. 15) aim to address the issue. But unless something drastic happens, even building a new prison at this point wouldn’t bring Nebraska to its capacity. It would need two.

That has a huge effect on efforts to help incarcerated people, especially for drug offenses, and non-violent drug offenses made up 26% of all prison admissions in 2020. Molly Robustelli, senior policy specialist with the Crime and Justice Institute, said possession can usually be attributed to addiction, which requires treatment, behavioral health programs or, better yet, prison alternatives. Those aren’t available across Nebraska’s criminal justice system, though, and the absence of that programming, the CJI report says, can lead to higher rates of recidivism. 

“The overcrowding is a bottleneck and certain programs are only available in certain facilities,” Robustelli said. “It just creates challenges upon someone’s release.”

There are also too few correctional officers to oversee classes — though some programs like the CJC put their employees through prison training so they can lead classes unsupervised. And when they do get in front of prisoners, it has an effect.

In 2019, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studied about 380 CJC participants and found they were less than half as likely as other prisoners to reoffend. Greg Glass started as a participant but now helps lead the classes as a peer counselor. It’s his way of giving back.

“I can’t undo the harms I’ve caused,” Glass said. “But I think about my life, and someday I’m going to die. This is my way of paying it forward, to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

Greg Glass stands in a room of the Omaha Correctional Center. Photo by Chris Bowling.

But the CJC, which is one of many organizations that sponsor programs for Nebraska’s incarcerated people, has its work cut out for it. Its staff of seven covers two jails, all 12 of the state’s probation districts and 10 prisons, said founder Jim Jones. The latter releases about 1,800 people annually, about 500 of whom go through the CJC’s program, according to Jones. So they have to work fast to reach as many people as possible — compressing their course load into one day and a follow-up graduation.

In the morning, trainers challenge participants to talk about what brought them to prison, specifically experiences like trauma, addiction and mental illness. The afternoon The Reader attended a session, Jones, who founded CJC in 2001, read letters from people who’d been impacted by crimes, like a woman whose mother struggled with a drug addiction that destroyed their family. Jones asked participants to put themselves in the mom’s shoes, to think about the harm she caused and what she lost. Their homework was to visualize the effect their crimes had on people around them.

Jim Jones stands outside the Omaha Correctional Center. Photo by Chris Bowling.

In addition to the actual coursework, part of what makes the program effective are the trainers leading it.

Abdullah, who was sentenced to death row in 1977 for a crime he committed at 16, found mentors and purpose before being released in 2016. Roscoe Wallace, who had been in and out of prison since the ‘80s, changed his life after losing his son to gang violence. Jones himself spent two years in prison after a military injury turned into a prescription drug addiction, which escalated and resulted in a string of Lincoln robberies in 1989.

“The hook is that they’ve been incarcerated and now are out living positive lives,” Glass said. “That shows people that this is possible.”

When Robert Ortiz saw the class advertised on a notice board in the OCC, he jumped on it. It was the first program he’d seen in months. Speaking frankly about these emotions doesn’t happen often in prison, he said.

“It’s like putting words to thoughts you couldn’t express,” Oritz said.

But Ortiz is also the type of person who’s ready to confront these feelings and has been working with a therapist. Who really needs to hear what the CJC has to say are the guys in his unit who haven’t taken the same steps. 

Robert Ortiz sits inside the Omaha Correctional Center. Photo by Chris Bowling.

“I think it can be useful for anyone, but not everyone will give themselves that chance,” Ortiz said. “You can see how the mindset works. They’re afraid to open themselves up.”

Making informed decisions on programming requires data and research Nebraska doesn’t have, said Zach Hamilton, associate director of Nebraska’s Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Identifying, for however many dollars you spend on reentry, how many recidivism events you prevent, how many future crimes you prevent, that work hasn’t been done,” Hamilton said. “I think there’s a general understanding that dollars and cents tend to go more towards confinement of individuals and less towards programming of individuals.”

Some states have dedicated decades to that research.

Since the ‘90s, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy has provided its state legislature with a cost-benefit analysis for how much each program saves or costs the state.

Circles of Support and Accountability save Washington taxpayers $25,956 for every inmate who participates in a program. Meanwhile, injecting a person with Naltrexone (a drug meant to prevent people from using drugs and alcohol in the future) hasn’t been shown to work and ends up costing taxpayers $20,376 for every person who receives it.

“You saw nationally during the Obama administration [a push] for some sort of an understanding of evidence-based practices, and utilizing those evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism,” said Hamilton, whose UNO group is starting its own cost-benefit analysis of programs available to Nebraska’s inmates. “[We need to] identify that programs exist, but some of them are better than others. And if you can evaluate those programs, identify what works and then replicate them, you’re going to have a greater chance of success.”

That’s not to say Nebraska hasn’t researched its system. In 1989, a legislative research team deemed Nebraska prisons were at a “capacity crisis.” In the last decade, the state has twice received funding from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Charitable Trusts that connects states with researchers and provides funding for studies. 

Phil, a Community Justice Center participant, reflected in a fisheye security mirror. Photo by Chris Bowling.

In 2014, outside researchers built policy examples for the state that would have reduced its prison population by 10%, investing $32.8 million in recidivism reduction strategies and saving $306.4 million in building and operating a new prison.

Those proposals went untouched and the population increased beyond projections to 5,658 inmates in 2020. Last year researchers returned to give it another shot. Of the 21 proposed solutions, 17 were unanimously approved by a working group of experts. Those solutions included finding alternatives to jail time for low-risk offenders, improving reentry practices, adding capacity to mental health services and eliminating barriers to employment. 

The group’s analysis led to LB920, which would have established court alternatives for lesser crimes, financial incentives for higher education and more. But the bill stalled in this year’s legislative session largely because opponents balked at reducing sentences for certain crimes. Len Engel, the director of policy and campaigns for CJI, which conducted Nebraska’s most recent study, said the good news is that a lot of lawmakers and agency officials understand the problem. The bad news is advocates for reform need to make a convincing argument – and quick.

“[Making small changes] requires basically a system that’s controllable,” Engel said. “And right now, it’s somewhat out of control because of the number of people incarcerated.”

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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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