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Nebraska officials investigating after deadly prison revolt

Neb. Gov. Pete Ricketts, left, listens to Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, during a news conference in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, May 12, 2015, as they discuss the aftermath of the weekend prison disturbance that left two inmates dead at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in southeast Nebraska. The Tecumseh State Correctional Institution remained on lockdown Tuesday, Frakes says the situation was under control. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska officials promised Tuesday a thorough investigation of a deadly prison revolt, including a review of the facility’s staffing and emergency procedures and how exactly two sex offenders were killed.

Authorities declined to give specifics as prison officials worked to reopen sections of the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution damaged in the 11-hour security breakdown. Two inmates serving time for child sexual assault were killed, four prisoners were injured and four staff members were assaulted. The prison was still on lockdown.

Director of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes acknowledged that the prison in the southeast corner of the state has struggled with high employee turnover and overtime due to staffing shortages. But he said it wasn’t clear whether the facility was properly staffed during the unrest that began about 2:30 p.m. Sunday after workers attempted to disband a large group of inmates.

“Corrections is a business of risk,” Frakes said. “It’s easy after the fact to say we knew or should have known that something was going to happen. There’s always a potential for something bad to happen in prisons.”

Frakes said he met with about 30 inmates at the prison less than three weeks ago and didn’t sense that a major conflict was brewing. Some of the men voiced frustration that their movements were restricted and said they didn’t have enough to do, Frakes said.

Frakes said the 960-bed facility houses about 60 more inmates than intended and is one of the state’s least overcrowded prisons.

Tecumseh State Correctional Institution has 502 full-time staff positions, but it wasn’t clear how many are currently filled or how many staff members were on duty Sunday evening, spokeswoman Jessica Houseman said. Frakes said the disturbance began at the start of a shift, and staff rosters were not completed or entered into the electronic system.

Autopsies were scheduled Tuesday for inmates Shon Collins and Donald Peacock, both 46, who died during the chaos. Prison officials have said both men were likely killed by other inmates. Frakes declined to release how the inmates were killed until the autopsy results are final.

Peacock and Collins were serving sentences for first-degree sexual assault of a child and visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct.

State officials have said they don’t yet know whether the dead inmates were targeted because they were sex offenders, but the head of the union that represents prison workers said such actions are common in riots.

“Once you lose control of a situation like that, inmates will do inmate justice — or what they believe is justice,” said Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees.

Department spokesman James Foster declined to say Tuesday where the bodies were found, citing the criminal investigation. Two days after the incident, Foster said prison officials still didn’t know what prompted the inmates to gather in the yard.

Prison officials moved some inmates into other cells to make room for repairs. Frakes said the damage included surveillance cameras, walls and cell-door windows. No overall cost estimate was available yet, but replacing the cameras was expected to cost $25,000 to $30,000.

Frakes said the department has brought in a review team to examine the prison’s emergency response plan, review incident reports from the disturbance, and interview staff and inmates.

A review by the Corrections Department will be incorporated into a broader prison reform plan scheduled for release this fall, Gov. Pete Ricketts said. The review will include whether more staffing is needed at the facility.

Building a new prison remains a last resort, Ricketts said.

Marvin said the Tecumseh prison relies heavily on overtime to fill job vacancies. Some officers volunteer for 16-hour shifts but only do so because they think it will increase their chances of getting a day off, he said.

“It’s a dangerous situation when you’re relying on that much overtime,” Marvin said. “You get tired. You make a mistake. Mistake can cost lives.”

In addition, Marvin said the high turnover and rare pay raises have cost the facility experienced workers who might have defused the situation. The prisons location also makes it harder to recruit, he said, because few people want to commute an hour from Lincoln or Omaha.

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