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Nebraska prison revolt began with spat over alcohol

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska prison uprising in March that left two inmates dead began because inmates were angry that prison staffers had confiscated 150 pounds (68 kilograms) of homemade alcohol from them, corrections officials said Thursday.

Officials said the inmates made the alcohol using bread, fruit and sugar from the prison’s kitchen and stored it in watertight footlockers under their beds. Prison officials smelled the alcohol and searched the cells while inmates were at lunch, said Brad Hansen, the warden of the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

“We just made them mad because we took away their homemade alcohol,” Hansen said at a briefing with reporters.

Inmates were also angry about what they perceived as a correctional officer’s assault of a prisoner, Hansen said. He said security footage showed the officer bumped into the inmate unintentionally on a narrow walkway.

Both incidents contributed to the March 2 uprising that left two inmates dead and caused at least $64,000 worth of damage in the maximum-security unit, Hansen said. Roughly 40 inmates in the unit refused to return to their cells, and prison staff members left their posts because they believed they were in danger. Inmates covered their faces with towels and set fire to mattresses in a small yard outside the unit.

The revolt followed a May 2015 riot at the same prison that left two other inmates dead and caused more than $2 million in damage.

Prison officials on Thursday announced a series of security upgrades that are being made or have been completed, based on an outside review of the most recent uprising.

The changes include restrictions in the 128-bed housing unit that will reduce the amount of time inmates spend outside of their cells but still allow them access to rehabilitative services, said corrections director Scott Frakes.

Prison officials have banned fresh fruit from the kitchen, replacing it with canned fruit, which is more difficult to smuggle. They also plan to conduct more thorough searches of inmates leaving the kitchen, and inmates who are caught producing large amounts of alcohol will get placed in segregation.

Frakes defended his department’s handling of the uprising, noting that authorities contained it to one unit. No prison employees were harmed. The Nebraska State Patrol is still investigating the inmate deaths from 2015 and the more recent violent outbreak, but it has not made any arrests.

“Every time something like this happens, there are lessons learned,” Frakes said.

Frakes said he had not seen any evidence that inmates started this year’s uprising with the intent of killing the two inmates, 39-year-old Damon Fitzgerald and 31-year-old Michael Galindo.

Nebraska’s prisons have faced a bevy of other problems in recent years, including the June 2016 escape of two men serving time for sex crimes. In 2014, under a previous administration, prison officials acknowledged that they miscalculated hundreds of inmate sentences and released some of them too early.

Nebraska lawmakers created a new oversight committee earlier this month to examine problems in the state prison system, including the recent outbreaks of violence. State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, the committee’s chairwoman, said lawmakers will likely want to know more about how the inmates were able to produce so much alcohol without getting noticed sooner.

“Why is it happening?” she said. “Maybe it’s an inevitable part of prison life, but it sounds like there was a lot of it. We want to make sure people aren’t oblivious to it or turning a blind eye.”

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