Jason Galle is an inmate in the Nebraska State Penitentiary and he can barely move.
Due to severe pain in his leg after being shot during his arrest, Galle, who is in prison for theft and assaulting a police officer, could only stand for up to 15 minutes. His leg broke again in July, and now he can’t move at all without assistance. Despite frequent requests since his incarceration in 2010, the 42-year-old has not been approved for treatment to set the fracture and remove bone fragments in his leg.
At one point he was given crutches, but, according to a new ACLU lawsuit, they were taken away because the Department of Correctional Services did not think he was using them enough. Galle, who was hospitalized after suffering a psychotic break, frequently skips meals because it is too painful for him to walk down stairs.
Galle is just one of 11 Nebraska inmates represented in a new lawsuit filed against the state’s Department of Correctional Services on Wednesday. The suit claims the state’s prisons are under-resourced and “in a state of chaos” due to severe overcrowding. Because of the Department of Correctional Services’ “deliberate indifference” to these problems, the suit claims, prisoners are frequently denied adequate health care and disability accommodations.
At around 159 percent capacity and housing nearly 2,000 more inmates than it is designed to hold, Nebraska’s prison system is the fourth most overcrowded system in the country. All but one state prison is operating above capacity, with several operating at nearly 200 percent capacity, according to an April-June 2017 Correctional Services quarterly data sheet (PDF). Unless drastic action is taken, the prison system is projected to reach 170 percent capacity by 2020 (PDF).
“You simply cannot operate a constitutional prison at 160 percent, or 200 percent, or 302 percent capacity,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “Every single essential service breaks down at that level of crowding.”
Many of the inmates represented in the new suit claim to have been held in isolation for days at a time, and suffer from poorly treated mental illness in addition to physical ailments and disability.
One of the focuses of the lawsuit is the system’s failure to treat inmate mental health issues. The lawsuit accuses staff of “ignor(ing) prisoners’ suicide attempts as ‘attention seeking’ and place prisoners with psychiatric disabilities in isolation as a punishment for self-mutilation, where the prisoners’ condition only further deteriorates.” The suicide rate in Nebraska state prisons is more than 30 percent higher than the national state prison average, according to a 2016 Department of Justice report.
Isaac Reeves, who was 16 years old when he entered the Nebraska prison system in 2013, is another inmate named in the suit. He’s serving time for escape from custody and assault by a confined person. Diagnosed with depression and suffering panic and anxiety attacks, Reeves has spent several days at a time in isolation and strapped in five-point restraints. While restrained he was forced to soil himself, while jail staff mocked him, the suit claims. He’s tried to kill himself three times, including one time when he bit his left wrist to the bone.
Another man has gone blind since his 2005 imprisonment, having lost sight in one eye due to a physical injury, and sight in the other eye because of mismanagement of his diabetes treatment. Because he was not able to get proper treatment, he has diabetic ulcers on his lower body which, according to the suit, may eventually require amputation. The suit also alleges that the jail has failed to properly accommodate his disability, and that sometimes staff purposefully trip him or put objects in his way.
The ACLU also blames overcrowding for heightened violence within the prison system. In the past two years the prison system has had two deadly riots that killed four prisoners, injured several staff members, and caused millions of dollars in damage.
Fathi said these issues have been persistent for more than 20 years and are only expected to get worse as the Nebraska government has failed to take appropriate action to curb the rising prison population.
“It is not a problem at just one or two prisons,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s a system-wide problem.”
Despite ACLU requests, Gov. Pete Ricketts has consistently declined to declare a prison emergency, though state law allows him to do so if overcrowding exceeds 140 percent capacity, a threshold the prison system hit a decade ago. If such an emergency were called, the state would begin releasing low risk inmates on parole.
“Over the past few years, all three branches of state government have made justice reinvestment and corrections reform a top priority,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “Together we have invested millions of dollars of taxpayers to protect the public safety and expand our state prisons. This litigation from the ACLU threatens public safety by seeking the early release of dangerous criminals and could endanger our corrections officers by further limiting the tools they have to manage the inmate population.”
Correctional Services Director Scott Frake also said in April, in response to an ACLU lawsuit ultimatum, that the prison system was already implementing reforms and making progress.
“We are not just sitting back and waiting for things to fix themselves,” he said.
Prison reforms made since November 2015 include revised parole hearing and eligibility standards, redefined drug offenses, and the establishment of an oversight council, according to the governor’s office.
Previous attempts at addressing the prison system’s problems, however, have been “too little too late,” according to Fathi.
“The crowding is really at a crisis level,” Fathi said. “... This requires more than nibbling around the edges. It requires dramatic action.”