- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s corrections director acknowledged Monday that his staff made mistakes but said no one has been fired over the care of a prisoner who swallowed an employee’s keys while under around-the-clock supervision.

Correctional services director Scott Frakes made the comments under intense questioning from a state lawmaker about Nikko Jenkins, a high-profile inmate who has repeatedly mutilated himself while in custody.

“It pretty much was a failure of staff to maintain control of their keys,” Frakes said before a special legislative prison oversight committee. Frakes also touched on issues such as staff turnover, prison overcrowding, a May 10 riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution and the use of solitary confinement during the wide-ranging hearing Monday.

Jenkins is awaiting sentencing at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln for four murders in Omaha in August 2013. The killings happened shortly after he was released into the public directly from solitary confinement, despite begging for a mental health commitment.

Since he returned to custody, the 29-year-old has cut his face, tongue and genitals using items common items: razor blades, a floor tile, a piece of radio, eyeglasses, shower screws and a prison guard’s badge. In January, prison officials say he tried to hang himself. Relatives of Jenkins have said he swallowed at least seven keys in late February and was treated by prison medical staff.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha railed against the department’s “incompetent” handling of Jenkins and accused staff members of intentionally providing Jenkins with items in hopes that he would kill himself. Frakes denied the allegation.

“For these things to continue happening, I think the responsibility is on your doorstep,” Chambers told Frakes. “You’re not doing what you need to do to keep them from happening.”

Frakes said an inmate getting hold of a staffer’s keys was a “very serious” matter but wasn’t enough to warrant firing the employee. He said numerous employees are involved in supervising Jenkins to keep him from hurting himself.

“You don’t terminate people because they made a single mistake,” he said.

Frakes said the prison’s counselors recently had “a little bit of a breakthrough” with Jenkins, who is beginning to change his behavior. Some psychiatrists who have interviewed Jenkins have said he’s schizophrenic and suffers from a dangerous anti-social personality disorder, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from severe childhood abuse.

“I don’t want Nikko Jenkins to hurt himself. I certainly don’t want him to kill himself,” Frakes said. “I would love nothing more than for him to find a way to communicate differently than he chosen to over the last few years.”

Lawmakers also raised the issue of prison employee retention and a shortage of mental health specialists within the prison. Prison officials are trying to fill 29 open positions to serve inmates with behavioral problems, said Lisa Jones, the department’s behavioral health administrator.

Jones said the worker shortage has made it harder to treat inmates before they become eligible for parole.

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