Inmate nearly died in smoky fire at Nebraska prison in October, report says

LINCOLN — A state prison inmate nearly died in a smoky fire in October at the Lincoln State Correctional Center, according to a recent state report, which stated that response to the fire was slowed, and injuries were worsened, because the housing unit was unstaffed at the time.

Just before noon on Oct. 23, an inmate diagnosed with mental illness and developmental disabilities set fire to his cell’s mattress using a broken TV cord, according to the report by the Office of Inspector General for Corrections, a watchdog office set up by the Nebraska Legislature.

Inmate rescued by staff, fellow inmate

It took several minutes for prison staff to notice the smoky fire in the secure mental health unit, which contained 36 cells, because the unit was unattended at the time. Overall staffing, on a Saturday, was at the minimum level allowed, according to the report.

Inmates, the report said, “kicked and pounded on their doors for several minutes, calling for help,” before a caseworker heard them and returned to the unit.

The inmate who started the fire was found face down and unresponsive in his smoke-filled cell. He was dragged out by a staff member with the help of a fellow inmate, likely saving his life, according to the report.

The inmate was hospitalized, and three prison staffers were sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation. One staffer who led the rescue and resuscitated the inmate, Sgt. Michael Cordonier, was hospitalized overnight. He was later commended by the Corrections Department for his life-saving actions.

The report stated that response to the fire was slowed, which likely contributed to the more serious injuries, because the unit was not staffed at the time and because of poor ventilation at LCC, a four-decade-old prison. (It was recently merged with two other prison facilities to become the Reception and Treatment Center.)

The caseworker assigned to watch the 18-cell secure mental health unit where the fire started and an adjacent, 18-cell restrictive housing (also known as solitary confinement) unit told investigators he had left the area to get a printout from a fellow prison staffer.

Poor ventilation

The inspector general’s report recommended that the prison system develop plans to ensure that housing units are staffed at all times and to improve fire safety so that smoke can be ventilated out.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes disputed an aspect of the report which stated that the agency was housing inmates with discipline problems in cells designed for prisoners with chronic mental illnesses.

Frakes said the inmate who started the fire, who was not identified in the report, was not assigned to the mental health wing due to a disciplinary infraction.

A years-long problem with filling and retaining prison staff has eased since October, when the fire occurred. In October, there were 105 vacancies in the “protective services” ranks — the corrections officers, corporals and caseworkers who monitor and care for inmates. There are now 36 vacancies in protective services, state prison spokeswoman Laura Strimple said.

‘Measured approach” to easing activities

LINCOLN — Despite a recent increase in hiring spurred by increased wages, a “staffing emergency” — which allows the state prison system to suspend inmate activities and to use longer shifts to fill vacant posts — is still in effect at the Reception and Treatment Center.

The agency, which had planned to lift the staffing emergency at the RTC on July 18, is taking a “measured approach” in easing inmate activities based on hiring new officers, according to state prison spokeswoman Laura Strimple.

A new, 384-bed addition to the RTC, which will include cells for the state’s most problematic inmates and for those with mental illnesses, is expected to partially open next month, Strimple said. Supply chain issues and labor shortages have delayed the opening of the new prison wing.

Staffing emergencies are still in effect at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln and at the Tecumseh State Prison, a rural facility that has struggled for years to fill all job vacancies.

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