By Christopher Zoukis
Shortly before 10:00 a.m. on September 7, 16 single-occupancy cells in a restrictive housing section of Nebraska’s top-security prison, the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute, unexpectedly opened. The cause of this irregularity was not certain, but a computer error in the system which controls the cellblock doors was suspected.
The restrictive housing unit is home to inmates who are regarded as posing dangers to other prisoners. It was the portion of the prison that corrections officials, and probably other inmates as well, would be least likely to want to have its cell doors unexpectedly open.
The inmates whose doors had unexpectedly opened were promptly ordered to stay in their cells. They just as promptly emerged into the gallery and refused to go back. Prison staff then ordered the inmates to leave the gallery, but with no more success than when they told them to remain in their cells. Prison staff broke out unnamed chemical agents to clear the gallery, but even that did not promptly produce the desired effect.
Instead, the inmates not only resisted going back to their cells, but someone started a fire in one of the vacated cells. The fire didn’t spread to any of the other cells, however, and was soon extinguished. Not long after that, the inmates returned to their cells and the riot response vehicles which had been summoned there departed.
One of the unexpectedly released inmates had been seriously injured but was not hospitalized, after being attacked by one or more of the others who had been inadvertently released. A second inmate also reportedly received minor injuries, but it wasn’t immediately clear how or from whom. No Tecumseh staff members were injured during any of this.
As eventful as the morning had proved to be, it was far from Tecumseh’s first time for mishaps or mayhem. Unlike earlier instances, the most recent incident did not produce significant property damage or inmate fatalities.
In March 2017, two inmates were killed, and others were injured, during a riot that saw a fire set in the prison’s courtyard. Order was only restored after emergency response units were brought in to the rural prison, a process which took about ten hours.
The cause of the earlier riot was variously attributed to reports prison staff had assaulted an inmate (a charge prison officials called unfounded) or inmate anger over staff confiscation of gallons of home-made alcohol when a large-scale inmate bootlegging operation was discovered.
Two years earlier, a pair of inmates were killed (one by stabbing and beating, the other by smoke inhalation) in a May 2015 riot in the same housing unit. That uprising also caused around $2 million in property damage to the facility.
Prompted by these incidents, and other signs of trouble (including assaults on Tecumseh staff), Nebraska’s legislature cleared a reform package aimed at relieving the prison system’s chronic overcrowding and understaffing.
Even so, conditions there will remain less than ideal: the legislative response mandates that the state system lower, not eliminate, overcrowding: by July 2020, the prison system is supposed to reduce overcrowding from the current level (160% of capacity) to 140%.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.