Gov. Ricketts defends withholding of report on deadly Tecumseh prison riot

Gov. Ricketts defends withholding of report on deadly Tecumseh prison riot
Scattered debris and other damage is shown in Housing Unit 2 at the Tecumseh State Prison after a May 2015 riot. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts defended the Nebraska Corrections Department for not releasing a less-than-flattering report on a Tecumseh State Prison riot back in 2015, saying that agencies can’t release all the reports they order, but if people ask for them, they will be provided.

“But we don’t publish everything that we do because the volume of work is so great,” Ricketts told reporters Tuesday.

Whether that is proper transparency for a taxpayer-paid report is something a group of state lawmakers now plans to explore during a special meeting called for Tuesday at the State Capitol.

One other question likely to come up is why the previously unreleased report wasn’t provided to a special legislative committee back in 2016, when that panel requested all reports relevant to the issues of prison staffing and emergency operations at Tecumseh.

“To find out there’s another report out there that we didn’t know about is somewhat concerning for sure,” said State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who heads both the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and a special oversight committee on the Department of Correctional Services that will hold a joint meeting next Tuesday.

The report in question, done by two authorities on corrections, concerned the Mother’s Day riot that left two inmates dead and caused more than $2 million in damage at the Tecumseh State Prison.

Unlike another report on the riot that was released publicly, the report done by Dan Pacholke, deputy secretary of the Washington state prison system, and Bert Useem, a University of Purdue authority on prison riots, disagreed that the Mother’s Day riot occurred as a “matter of chance.” Instead, Pacholke and Useem said that a handful of unaddressed prison problems left the Tecumseh prison “primed … for rebellion.”

The existence of the Pacholke/Useem report didn’t come to light until last week during a trial over claims that the state was negligent in allowing inmates to take over vast sections of the medium/maximum security prison.

The revelation about a second report led to questions about whether the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office properly shared all information as part of the pre-trial discovery process. It also raised questions about whether the report was withheld because it made the department look bad.

Ricketts, at a press conference on a different topic, rejected that.

“I believe it was advice that the director probably wasn’t going to take,” the governor said. “He obviously had a different report he planned on using, and that was the report he shared (publicly).”

Ricketts said Tuesday that he has never seen the previously unreleased prison riot report by Pacholke and Useem, nor has his prison director, Scott Frakes, discussed it with him.

Back in 2015, the prison system released a 37-page report on the Mother’s Day riot done by Tomas Fithian, a prison security authority in Washington state. Fithian offered several recommendations and observations but concluded that there were no warning signs that a riot was imminent.

Frakes has so far declined to comment on why the Pacholke/Useem report, which cost $20,000, didn’t surface publicly until last week.

In a letter Tuesday to Ebke, Frakes said he could not attend next Tuesday’s special meeting because he’ll be on vacation but said “I want to meet and answer your questions.”

Other corrections administrators have been asked to testify Tuesday in Frakes’ absence.

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