Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Lincoln Journal-Star. May 31, 2022.

Editorial: A win and a warning for prison system

Late last month, Gov. Pete Ricketts and a host of Nebraska Department of Correctional Services officials celebrated the unveiling of the “reimagined” Reception and Treatment Center, just weeks after Ricketts and conservative Republican senators thwarted an initiative that would have brought true prison reform to Nebraska.

Built on the parking lot that separated the Lincoln Correctional Center and Diagnostic Evaluation Center on West Van Dorn Street, the Reception and Treatment Center effectively turned the two facilities into one, updating, remodeling and rehabbing the old facilities into what Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes called a “modern, highly functional prison.”

The “crown jewel” of the $125 million project, according to Frakes, is a 384-bed maximum security wing that will begin to house incarcerated men later this summer. That wing, Frakes said, could get the nation’s most overcrowded prison system “back down to operational level, operational capacity.”

But given that Nebraska also has the fastest-growing prison population in the country, the luster will go off that jewel in, at most, months after it is opened.

In fact, the Reception and Treatment Center project vividly shows why Nebraska will not be able to build its way out of the corrections crisis. That project was a half decade in planning and took months of construction.

That would hold true for the new prison that Ricketts and the Corrections Department have proposed and the Legislature authorized, but didn’t fund. Given the time it would take to build and staff a new prison, it would likely be nearly full on the day it begins operation.

But Ricketts, who initially supported the prison reform initiative, and the Legislature’s conservatives, while celebrating the needed increase in beds and modernized center, scuttled the real reform.

That, notably, is directly opposite of the approach of the more than three dozen states that have implemented prison reform, most often a coupling of reductions in criminal penalties with treatment and enhanced supervision intended to help people succeed after release.

Those reforms have sent U.S. inmate numbers tumbling, including in Texas and other conservative states, where prison reform was embraced by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, as the criminal justice vision for the 21st century.

But the backwards looking legislators and Ricketts opposed the reforms, arguing that the treatment and enhanced supervision should come first, but doing nothing to implement them and then attacking opponents and labeling sentencing reductions as “soft on crime.”

As long as that recalcitrant view of the reforms that other states have shown to work is dominant, Nebraska’s prisons will remain in crisis, overcrowded with insufficient staffing and programming.

We can only hope that the new governor, who will be elected in November, and the Legislature that will see a number of new senators in 2023, will change that view and adopt reforms that have worked in the majority of states.

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Omaha World-Herald. June 5, 2022.

Editorial: Finding and honoring graves of Genoa students would help Nebraska heal

The latest news out of Genoa, Nebraska — the former home of one of the nation’s largest federal Native American boarding schools — is both sad and uplifting.

Sad that the recent search for an unmarked burial site near the town is a stark reminder of the shameful past government policy of removing Native American children from their parents.

Sad that some of those children died away from their families while at schools like the Genoa Indian Industrial School, established in a misguided attempt at cultural indoctrination and vocational instruction. Genoa, the fourth such school in the U.S., operated from 1884 to 1934.

And sad that those children were treated so disrespectfully in death.

A federal investigation has so far identified more than 500 deaths at 19 schools, although it’s believed that the number could climb to thousands or even tens of thousands. At least 86 children are thought to have died at Genoa.

So where’s the uplifting part? Well, as World-Herald staff writer Jessica Wade reported last week, a serious effort is underway to find Genoa’s lost school cemetery, which holds out hope that the school’s dead will finally be properly honored.

A 1920 plat map suggests the possible location of the cemetery site, although efforts to use ground-penetrating radar produced inconclusive results last fall.

Last month, however, specially trained dogs were able to narrow the search zone. The dogs can detect the odor of gases that remain underground long after a body has started to decompose.

The next step will be additional searches in the area identified by the dogs, including more ground-penetrating radar and metal detecting. If graves are found, tribal leaders ultimately will decide whether to excavate.

Whatever the final outcome, the efforts to find the cemetery are bringing hope to people like Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Indian Affairs Commission. “It’s so important,” said gaiashkibos, whose mother attended the school.

As we said last year, paying attention to the school’s history isn’t a matter of living in the past. Instead, it offers a chance for all Nebraskans to try to understand and acknowledge the mistakes of the past, which sets the stage for moving forward.

It’s helpful for us all to consider the impact of those schools on the Native children who were forced to attend them and were forbidden to embrace their own culture. Finding the Genoa school cemetery and properly honoring the lives of the children who died there would aid the process of reconciliation.

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