Disturbance at Nebraska State Penitentiary Followed Change in Mealtime Procedures

From Omaha World Herald

A prison disturbance Tuesday that required the firing of a warning shot to quell it followed a change in mealtime procedures at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

The change restricted the number of inmates who could eat in the dining hall at any given time and went into effect at the evening meal on Tuesday. Afterward, some inmates ignored multiple orders to return to their housing unit.

Groups of inmates throughout the prison then became defiant and verbally aggressive, according to a Corrections Department press release. After a group of inmates gathered and converged on staff, a warning shot was fired from a tower.

The last time a warning shot was fired at a Nebraska prison, according to the agency, was in September to break up a large inmate fight at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln. A warning shot was also used, unsuccessfully, in May 2015 and a riot erupted at the Tecumseh State Prison that resulted in the murder of two inmates and more than $2 million in vandalism.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the new mealtime policy was implemented because some inmates had been “defiant, disobedient and verbally threatening, particularly during mealtimes,” and to protect staff. The defiance, he said, occurred even though inmates have been granted more out-of-cell time in recent weeks.

“Our mission is keep people safe,” Frakes said in a release Tuesday night. “Doing that requires controlled movement and compliance with rules.”

After the warning shot was fired, the prison staff was able to return inmates to their cells, and a lockdown of the entire facility began. During a lockdown, inmates must remain in their cells, except for a few needed for critical prison jobs.

Rich Cruickshank, the warden at the penitentiary, said that the majority of inmates were cooperative, and at no time during the disturbance was public safety endangered.

The facility remained on lockdown Wednesday evening. An investigation of the incident is underway, according to prison spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith.

The penitentiary has a design capacity of 718 inmates but was holding 1,305 inmates at the time of the disturbance, Smith said.

Inmates have complained in recent years about restrictions on yard time and other activities at the penitentiary implemented to deter gang conflicts.

State prisons as a whole have been overcrowded for several years, which prompted state lawmakers to enact new sentencing laws to punish more offenders via probation rather than incarceration and approve construction of a $26 million prison addition.