Bill would ban visitors, employees from bringing cellphones into Nebraska state prisons

Bill would ban visitors, employees from bringing cellphones into Nebraska state prisons
State Sen. Justin Wayne

More than 250 contraband cellphones were found in Nebraska prisons in 2018, Inspector General Doug Koebernick said during a legislative hearing Wednesday.

That’s an increase from about 79 in 2015.

Legislative Bill 233 aims to stop inmates from coordinating illegal activity using cellphones and other communication devices in prisons, said State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, who introduced the bill.

Visitors and employees would not be allowed to bring cellphones into prisons, though the details of who would be exempt from the restriction are still being worked out, Wayne said.

Confiscated cellphones would be turned over to the Nebraska State Patrol for investigation.

In 2017, a food service worker in the Omaha Correctional Center was arrested in connection with the selling of phones to inmates.

Inmates might buy cellphones from other inmates or even staff for up to $2,000, said James Davis, a deputy ombudsman.

Phones can be trafficked, for example, through laundry from Cornhusker State Industries, a division of Corrections that employs inmates, Davis said.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes said they are “making good headway” on the issue.

“The biggest bulk source we’ve identified is they bundle them and throw them over our perimeter fences,” Frakes said.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on the bill after the hearing.

Also Wednesday, under two bills heard simultaneously, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services would transfer all correctional investigations to the Nebraska State Patrol. Wayne and Sen. Anna Wishart introduced the bills, LB 94 and LB 438, respectively.

Wayne said an institution should never investigate itself, and that there should be more investigators, especially with law enforcement training. The president of the Nebraska State Fraternal Order of Police, Jim Maguire, testified in favor.

The head of both Corrections and the State Patrol testified against the bills.

Bill requiring regular rental inspections in Omaha advances in Legislature

Rental inspections. A bill requiring Omaha to regularly inspect rental housing advanced Wednesday, despite opposition from Omaha city officials. The Urban Affairs Committee voted 4-1, with two western Nebraska senators abstaining, to send Legislative Bill 85 to the full Legislature.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, the committee chairman, introduced the measure to prevent situations like what happened at the Yale Park Apartments at 34th Avenue and Lake Street. Omaha officials evacuated the apartments last year after finding filthy conditions and almost 2,000 code violations. City officials took no actions until receiving formal complaints.

Under LB 85, the city would have to create a registry of rental properties and inspect them every three years. The committee adopted amendments aimed at reducing opposition, including a three-year timeline to roll out the inspection program and exemptions for properties that are already subject to inspection.

The amendment also removed Lincoln from the bill. Wayne said he plans an interim study to look at what is needed there and in other cities across Nebraska.

Wayne said the bill is needed to overcome a court order resulting from a federal lawsuit filed by the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association some years ago. The order limits the city’s ability to inspect properties. He said there are other properties with conditions similar to those at Yale Park.

Slavery ban. A constitutional amendment to make clear that all slavery is banned in Nebraska moved a step closer to the ballot Wednesday. The Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced Legislative Resolution 1CA to the full Legislature.

The measure would remove an exception to the state’s prohibition on slavery, which dates to 1875. The exception allowed for slavery as punishment for a crime. It was used to arrest African-Americans and force them into involuntary servitude, a practice known as convict leasing.

Despite voting for the proposal, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha raised concerns about how voters would respond, noting that past constitutional amendments have not always fared well without a campaign on their behalf.

“What does it say if this thing doesn’t pass?” he asked.