Playing Chicken with Corrections

© 2003 Last Updated: 05/28/03

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Whether you agree with Sen. Pedersen's suggestion (in the 2003 budget bill, LB407) to close the Lincoln Correctional Center or not, at least it will force a public debate about the cost of corrections and the process of parole. These are long standing problems which for years were either ignored or covered up. Irregardless of that ignorance or misdirection, failing to deal with these problems led our state government to spend millions to build a prison in Tecumseh which will never be filled. We can no longer afford to build more prisons like this. Our state government must function properly and solve these real problems.

I could write a small book on why Nebraska's state government is dysfunctional. The short story is that government is supposed to be a process, instead of just people with power. The public showed their intuitive understanding of this principle in the recent Lincoln city elections. When people feel that someone is buying the power of government they vote for the other person.

In this debate we have to listen to and think about what the people with power are saying, instead of just reacting to their emotions. Politicians have always presented a schizophrenic image of prisons to the public. To deter crime they present prison as a hellhole of homosexual violence. When they want to say we are soft on crime they present prisons as country clubs; "Oh look, they have a tennis court." Neither image is accurate, the truth is somewhere in between. But from their words you can see where they are trying to lead people.

Department of Corrections (DCS) officials complain about the rising costs of medical care and the lack of money for programs like education. But there are plenty of ways for DCS to save money that they refuse to implement.

There are ways to reduce medical expenses. Instead of paying for Vioxx prescriptions for every aging inmate with arthritis pain they could allow inmates to purchase their own over-the-counter remedies like Glucosamine (or even simple vitamins) in the canteen. DCS has refused to do this even though they had allowed inmates to purchase vitamins in the past.

DCS medical staff recently published their first "Healthy Happenings" newsletter encouraging inmates to walk an hour a day to prevent cardio-vascular disease. The NSP gym used to have three stationary bikes that many of the inmates used for aerobic and cardio-vascular exercise. These bikes were paid for by the inmates through the Inmate Welfare Fund. However, they were removed when a local law enforcement officer (another person with power) toured the prison and complained that the inmates had the same kind of stationary bikes he paid monthly dues to use at his health club. The bikes were removed from the gym and at least one of them was placed in the medical facility. Instead of preventing cardio-vascular problems (and saving the associated medical costs) an inmate must now have developed cardio-vascular problems before medical will allow them to use the stationary bike. Why not simply put those bikes back in the gym and prevent those expensive cardio-vascular problems in the first place.

DCS could meet some of their legal requirements for educational opportunities without spending money. They could allow inmates to purchase their own personal computers and learn to use them in the secured environment of the hobby shop. Over half of all the jobs on the outside now involve some use of a computer but DCS no longer has any computer education for inmates. DCS refuses to allow inmates to spend their own money for such educational purposes.

It isn't that DCS can't save any more money. If you listen carefully you will find that they just have a different agenda and saving money isn't a part of that agenda.

For example, Harold Clarke says that if we let 500 people out there will just be 500 more that take their place. But doesn't that mean if we don't let those 500 out the next 500 will need another prison built to house them too? How does Mr. Clarke suggest we pay for that? The reality behind what he is saying is that Mr. Clarke doesn't care how it gets paid for; that is not his job. Harold Clarke is not a bad person, he is just a bureaucrat. That is what bureaucrats do. They perform a public service and every bureaucrat knows that if they had more money they could provide an even better public service. What decent person doesn't want to do a better job?

The current parole process also needs to be fixed. It does not work now; it has not worked for over a decade. It has devolved into the Parole Board members having arbitrary power over who gets parole and who doesn't. The current parole board members aren't able to differentiate between those people who ought to get parole (or it is safe to parole) and those that shouldn't be paroled. Don't blame them entirely. What kind of parole process do you expect from people who have arbitrary power when loud-mouthed politicians stand up on their soapboxes telling people that everybody is bad and nobody should get out of prison?

Mike Johanns says these 500 are not the kind of people you want living next door to you. So where does he think the 2000 inmates, that, are going to be released over the next two years, are going to live? Some of them are going to live next door to you anyway, just like they did before they went to prison. Not even the Governor can stop that. So what is he really afraid of?

Mike Johanns fears what every modern politician fears. He doesn't want the finger pointed at him if one of the 500 released turns into another Willie Horton. So rather than fix the parole process he plays chicken with the Legislature. He will force the Legislature to override his veto to get this job done so they can be blamed for any potential Willie Hortons. Instead of a functioning parole process the public gets a game of chicken over corrections.

But the current Parole Board has already implemented Johann's vision of parole. The Parole Board has already given the Governor his Willie Horton and his name is Louis Conover. Conover was paroled and is currently in the Adams County Jail, accused of killing his elderly parents with a baseball bat. Conover is the perfect example of how dysfunctional our parole and corrections systems are. If the press did a better job of showing the public that the Governor already has his Willie Horton the debate over how to fix these problems would have happened long before the threat to close the Lincoln Correctional Center.

Ultimately it is the Legislature's responsibility to create the process of law that is due in the parole and corrections systems. Chicken or not, it is their job to push the button and make this work as best they can under today's trying financial circumstances. They won't be able to please everyone, but whether the result is praise or blame, that is what it takes to make government function. It is good to see the Legislature finally doing that.

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