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Nebraska prison riot damage 'much more extensive' than expected, could cost state $1.5 million


LINCOLN, Nebraska — Fixing the damage caused by a southeast Nebraska prison riot cost far more than initially predicted and could take until mid-2016 to complete, according to estimates released by the corrections department.

The Department of Correctional Services said it needs nearly $1.3 million to pay for new equipment, supplies, walls, doors and window grilles that were destroyed during the May 10 riot at the state prison in Tecumseh. Insurance covered slightly more than $1 million in expenses after the state paid a $200,000 deductible.

The estimate in a budget request to lawmakers far exceeds earlier tallies of the damage that wasn't covered by insurance. Four days after the riot, corrections director Scott Frakes told a legislative committee that his best cost estimate was between $350,000 and $500,000.

"As we were able to more closely inspect the facility, it was clear the damage was much more extensive than originally suspected," said Dawn-Renee Smith, the department's acting spokeswoman.

Two convicted sex offenders were killed, four inmates were injured and two staff members were assaulted during the riot, which lasted more than 10 hours. Inmates ripped down walls, ransacked cells, broke windows and set chairs and mattresses afire. Five inmates have been charged so far.

Authorities also had to rescue 19 staff and one volunteer trapped at various locations throughout the prison. The 960-bed, medium/maximum security prison has been on lockdown status ever since, with some inmates triple-bunking while cells are repaired.

Smith said the increased cost was largely due to cleaning and restoration expenses, including the cleanup of the prison's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Repairing the walls — the final piece of the restoration — could take until late spring or early summer of next year to complete, she said.

Smith said some of the cost for the walls will be covered by insurance, and part of the project is an upgrade to properly account for the custody level of offenders.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, the chairman of a corrections investigative committee, said Frakes warned senators in May that the costs could rise, and he wasn't surprised they did.

Seiler said the riot illustrated the need to staff the prison adequately and reduce overcrowding, a problem that hadn't been addressed for years. The state also needs to expand rehabilitative programming for prisoners to reduce recidivism, he said.

"Those are the key elements for getting control of a situation," Seiler said.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, an Appropriations Committee member, said it's too early to know whether the committee would support the department's funding request. Stinner said he hadn't yet seen a report detailing the full extent of the damage.

"The discussion has to focus on protecting inmates, protecting guards and making sure the facility is up to standards," he said.

An investigative report looking into why the riot occurred concluded that too many inmates were allowed to leave their cells at once to get medication. Only 57 staff members were available to manage 1,024 inmates when the riot began, and several were working overtime.

Inmates told investigators that the atmosphere was volatile because of a lack of jobs and vocational training, restrictions on access to the prison yard and perceived favoritism of prisoners who were participating in a program that offered incentives for good behavior.

The department is seeking a total of $3.2 million over two years to cover various expenses at the Tecumseh prison, but Smith said not all of the requests relate directly to the riot.

In August, Frakes released an "action plan" intended to boost security and reduce the likelihood of future riots. The plan includes an analysis of prison staff, additional staff training and drills, reviewing officials' response to prison disturbances and buying new "weapon resistant mops and brooms."

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