- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A legislative committee on Monday called for more Nebraska prison administrators to lose their jobs in the wake of several department scandals, blaming the agency’s problems on a culture of lawlessness and poor management.

The committee proposed 16 major reforms in a wide-ranging report on the Department of Correctional Services. Its chairman also faulted Gov. Dave Heineman for a failure to oversee the agency.

“Public safety starts and ends at the Department of Corrections,” said Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the committee chairman. “The absence of leadership and the culture that developed at the Department of Corrections compromised public safety.”

The department has faced intense scrutiny that began with the case of Nikko Jenkins, then expanded into revelations that prison officials prematurely released hundreds because their sentences were miscalculated. Prison officials again faced criticism during a roundup of those inmates, with Director Michael Kenney creating a program that some lawmakers say is illegal.

Heineman, a Republican, has said he wasn’t aware of all of the problems in the department but addressed them once they came to his attention.

The report calls for the termination of three prison administrators: records administrator Kyle Poppert, behavioral health administrator Mark Weilage and top prisons deputy Larry Wayne. It also calls on Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts not to retain Kenney; Ricketts has promised a national search of a new department head.

Lawmakers say Poppert was partly responsible for the hundreds of inmates whose sentences were miscalculated, while Wayne was involved in the Jenkins case.

Jenkins, who begged for a mental health civil commitment, was released directly from segregation in July 2013 and went on to kill four people in Omaha the following month.

A state ombudsman testified in October that Wayne told him he was “tired of us beating up on him about Nikko Jenkins’ mental health” while he was incarcerated. Wayne testified that he wasn’t told that Jenkins had threatened to kill people until after the murders, for which he was convicted this year.

Lathrop said Jenkins likely would have been committed if not for a “bureaucratic turf war” between state employees and a private psychiatrist who was hired to evaluate Jenkins.

The contracted psychiatrist, Dr. Natalie Baker, told lawmakers during testimony in September that she had earlier suggested Jenkins be committed, but state psychologists did not follow her recommendation and Weilage declined to share it with a local prosecutor who could have requested the commitment.

“It seems so senseless when we distill it down to something so disturbing, but that’s the best conclusion we can reach,” Lathrop said.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, an attorney and committee member, said the department has repeatedly disregarded state law.

“The irony is, these are the people that are in charge of keeping people who have broken law,” Seiler said.

The report suggests additional resources for mental health services and an overhaul of the state’s use of segregation.

It also said lawmakers should abolish the state furlough re-entry program created by Kenney, create an independent watchdog of the agency, and require governors to declare a state emergency once the state prison population exceeds 140 percent of what state facilities were designed to hold. Nebraska’s prisons were at 159 percent of their design capacity as of Nov. 30.

The committee said all three branches of government should work together to change the way Nebraska uses segregation on prisoners following the Jenkins case.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said work will begin once lawmakers convene for a new session next month.

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