Civil rights commission plans to shine light on adequacy of mental health care in prisons

Civil rights commission plans to shine light on adequacy of mental health care in prisons
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — The Nebraska committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission plans to investigate whether Nebraska prison inmates get adequate mental health care during a hearing next month.

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who chairs the the Nebraska Advisory Committee of the commission, said the hearing was inspired by conversations he’s had with Bob Houston, the former director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, and Mark Foxhall, the former administrator of the Douglas County Corrections Department, about dealing with the growing number of inmates that have behavioral and mental health issues.

About 20% of the state’s prison inmates suffer from serious mental illness, according to a 2016 estimate, and well over half deal with some kind of behavioral, mental health or substance abuse problem. The Douglas County Jail has been referred to as the “largest mental health facility” in the state because of the high number of offenders with issues and the lack of other treatment facilities.

“The question is, are there sufficient resources to adequately treat the conditions of these individuals,” said Benjamin-Alvarado, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The committee will take testimony on June 13, from 9 a.m to 4 p.m., at the Marriot Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln.

Most of the day will be reserved for invited testimony, but the public can comment beginning at 3 p.m. or can submit written testimony to

The civil rights group will also explore whether solitary confinement of inmates with mental health issues is used appropriately.

The State Legislature is poised to pass a bill this year what would ban the severely mentally ill from being sent to such special management cells. State corrections officials have added mental health units in state prisons in recent years as well. Meanwhile, inadequate treatment for the mentally ill is among the allegations raised by the ACLU of Nebraska in a federal civil rights lawsuit it filed against the state two years ago.

Benjamin-Alvarado said the June 13 hearing will allow the commission to explore “exactly where we’re at in Nebraska” and recommend “a way forward” to address the civil rights of inmates.

The Nebraska committee will eventually issue findings and recommendations based on its hearing. The committee’s last report was on the accuracy of the federal E-Verify system, which is used by employers to check the immigration status of prospective workers.