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Governor views damage at Tecumseh prison

TECUMSEH -- Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes led a couple of dozen journalists through the most damaged housing unit at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution on Tuesday.

The prison was the scene of the Mother's Day riot that left two inmates dead. 

"My reaction to seeing the damage inside only reinforces that these are dangerous, hardened criminals that are inside this facility," Ricketts said. "We need to have facilities like this to protect the public safety, and we need strong laws to protect the public safety, as well."

In his one-hour tour, Ricketts passed a window shattered during the riot by inmates trying to get access to a gym, where about 30 inmates were. 

Warden Brian Gage pointed out offices in which staff locked themselves in during the melee until they could be rescued. A female staff member barricaded herself in one office by moving a desk in front of the door while inmates pounded on it. 

The disturbance started at around 2:30 p.m. in front of housing Unit 1, which holds segregation and death row cells. That building was not breached by inmates during the riot.

A group of about 40 inmates gathered that afternoon and were told by correctional officers to disperse. Inmates resisted and guards in the tower fired a warning shot and then fired into the middle of the yard. Two inmates were injured. 

Ricketts led reporters into the most badly damaged housing unit, 2B, where the charred walls and debris are still being cleaned by a contract crew that has been on site for the past three days. A substandard wall was destroyed in the unit and will be rebuilt, he said.

Those 32 cells, which are no longer considered a crime scene for investigation purposes, Ricketts said, should be reopened in the next 48 hours. 

The bodies of inmates Donald Peacock and Shon Collins, both 46, were found in Unit 2B the morning after the May 10 uprising. It is believed they were killed by other inmates.

Two days ago, 13 senators and several legislative staff got their tour of the prison and an opportunity to get information on the riot. 

Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld said the biggest surprises were the level of damage inmates were able to create and how well coordinated the riot was. He could not imagine it was not planned, he said.  

He was told, he said, the inmates used baby oil, paper clips and toilet paper, ignited by electrical outlets, to melt Plexiglas-reinforced windows and get access to main corridors and other areas in the housing units.

Inmates then covered cameras and used staff phones to report fires, just to get central control staff to open cell blocks so they could gain access to other inmates for harmful purposes, Morfeld said.  

They then damaged and burned a wall, presumably to get to other inmates, he said.

"It sounded like it was just complete chaos," he said. 

Frakes has said damage costs from the riot could rise to $500,000. The state's insurance could cover much of the cost. 

On Tuesday, the prison was still locked down, with inmate movement restrictions beginning to loosen up slightly. The critical incident review team, hired by the state, started its work that morning, and the State Patrol and state fire marshal continued their investigations. 

The yards and housing units were eerily quiet, with all inmates locked out of view in closed-off housing areas.

Prisoners have been getting two meals a day since the riot, but on Tuesday they began getting two hot meals and sack lunches. Laundry service, more extensive medical services and restoration of the canteen will be added this week, Gage said. 

The warden, governor and corrections director praised staff that has put in countless hours to get the prison back to as normal as possible.

Nine Tecumseh staff members have quit their jobs in the past week.

Staffing -- both recruitment and retention -- is among issues the prison must address going forward, Gage said. 

"Having a stable, seasoned staff just adds to the overall culture of the facility," Frakes said. "It helps when everyone really does know how to do their job well."

Frakes said there were about 40 open positions at the prison at the time of the riot. 

The prison has 286 custody-level staff, including corrections officers and caseworkers, and 483 total positions in the facility, with administrative and service positions, Gage said. 

Some of the options the state will explore for retention is a ride-share or transportation program. The prison is an hour from the state's population centers, including Lincoln.  

Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse went on Tuesday's tour. He said he has been getting feedback since he was elected in 2012 from people concerned about the turnover and pay at the prison.  

The prison is in his district, which includes Johnson County, and he is concerned about how much the riot will cost the county. 

It costs an average of $4,500 when an inmate dies, for autopsies and other costs. 

A bill (LB105) he introduced this session, that would transfer the financial responsibility for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation from the counties to the state when an inmate dies, advanced from committee but was not prioritized or amended into another bill. 

If a high number of inmates are charged with crimes from the riot, those costs -- which could be well over $100,000 -- will come to Johnson County, he said. 

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