- Associated Press - Friday, August 8, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A former director of Nebraska’s corrections department told legislators investigating problems in the prison system that he resigned in September 2013 because he had become controversial.

Former director Robert Houston told a special legislative investigative committee that he left following criticism about actions by inmates outside the prison, the Lincoln Journal Star reported (https://bit.ly/1nAacrh ). He previously had defended his record and said the inmate problems hadn’t prompted his departure.

Those problems included an inmate who crashed a state-owned prisoner-transport van into a minivan, killing the other driver, as well as the arrest of two inmates on charges that they robbed a bank while on work release. The majority of criticism centered on the release of Nikko Jenkins, who was convicted of killing four people in Omaha soon after he left prison despite his pleas to be committed to a mental health institution.

Houston, who became director in 2005, said he realized it was time he should quit.

“The governor didn’t need it. I didn’t need it. The Department of Corrections certainly didn’t need it,” he said.

The committee is investigating the Department of Correctional Services’ failure to follow two Nebraska Supreme Court rulings that limit when certain prisoners can be released. Those miscalculations, first reported by the Omaha World-Herald, led to the early release of hundreds of inmates. The panel initially was formed to study Jenkins’ case.

Legislators questioned Houston on a number of topics as they tried to grasp the corrections department’s problems, including sentence miscalculations, prison overcrowding, mental health services for inmates and the decision to release Jenkins.

“Houston’s given us sort of the view from 30,000 feet,” said Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who is leading the committee.

During discussions about overcrowding, Houston said he never talked with Gov. Dave Heineman about a 2006 master plan that called for adding 1,300 prison beds at a cost of $88 million to handle an expected increase in inmates. Heineman never called for building more prisons. Nebraska’s prisons are now at 160 percent of capacity.

Asked about a letter Jenkins had written to prison officials in which he promised to kill people after his release, Houston told lawmakers he hadn’t seen the letter.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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