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Nebraska prisons seek crackdown on out-of-control contraband

LINCOLN — Authorities have declared war on contraband in Nebraska’s largest prisons, repeatedly combing cells in the hunt for cellphones, drugs and weapons, but one top administrator admits the sweeps probably miss dangerous items and characterizes the cleanup as a near-impossible task.

Contraband in prison is nothing new, but experts say fighting the problem has become harder thanks to technology that facilitates smuggling, as well as persistent staffing shortages and a small number of correctional workers and visitors who go to extreme lengths to sneak illegal items inside.

“It’s becoming more of a challenge,” said Kevin Kempf, executive director of the Association of Correctional Administrators. “A prison is nothing more than a small city with razor wires and fences around it. You have staff and vendors going in and out all of the time and, unfortunately, when there’s money involved, it’s tough to prevent all contraband from getting in.”

Spurred by a string of assaults on guards and an increase in synthetic drugs such as K2, which mimics the effects of marijuana, officials last month placed the Nebraska State Penitentiary on lockdown twice in one week. The surprise shakedowns yielded illegal drugs, shanks and cellphones, but prison officials say they probably didn’t get everything. Another search last week by three dozen Nebraska National Guard members uncovered more drugs, homemade weapons and alcohol at the Lincoln Correctional Center, a prison for medium- and maximum-security inmates.

Nati Harnik/AP 

In this Oct. 25 photo, a sign for the Nebraska State Penitentiary is seen behind razor wire in Lincoln. 

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said he asked the National Guard, Lincoln police and the Nebraska State Patrol to assist so the searches could be conducted without pulling correctional staffers from other prisons.

A small number of staffers and visitors are responsible for the contraband, including one visitor who hid drugs in the folds of his fat, Frakes said. Frakes said inmates and visitors constantly find creative ways to hide contraband. In his previous prison job in Washington, he said he encountered one inmate who concealed a 10-inch (25-centimeter) piece of sharpened metal in his rectum.

“I’ve seen the X-rays, and I shake my head,” he said.

Earlier this year, a man was arrested for allegedly trying to fly a drone loaded with marijuana and tobacco over the Lincoln Correctional Center.

Cellphones have become so prevalent in prisons — and present such a large security risk — that lawmakers approved new criminal penalties in May to discourage smugglers. Demand behind bars has surged in recent years, with cellphones fetching prices of $500 to $1,000 each.

Nati Harnik/AP 

In this Oct. 25 photo, guards observe inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

Nebraska prison officials confiscated more than 250 contraband phones last year. The state’s inspector general for corrections described cellphones as a “significant safety concern” because inmates use them to coordinate gang activity and communicate with the outside world.

Kempf said many prison officials would like to use the kind of cellphone jamming technology that was tested in a South Carolina correctional facility in April, but current federal regulations keep them from adopting the technology. A bill pending in Congress seeks to allow prisons to use jammers, but it’s opposed by the nation’s cellphone service providers, which say the technology could inadvertently block service to people living close to prisons.

The Nebraska State Penitentiary presents the most problems because of the large number of inmates and its location in the middle of Lincoln.

“It’s easy to get things in there,” said Doug Koebernick, a state inspector general who serves as an independent watchdog over the corrections department.

Koebernick said prison staffing shortages leave many workers tired and less likely to thoroughly pat down visitors and fellow employees entering the prison. He said staff members have complained to him that searches aren’t nearly thorough enough.

Frakes said the department is reviewing its search procedures and stressed that most staffers are doing their jobs correctly. But, he said, it’s virtually impossible to catch everything. Every shift change brings 50 to 70 employees into the prison and searching each of them thoroughly could take two hours. Employees recognize and know each other, and assume their co-workers aren’t doing anything illegal.

On Thursday, Frakes declared a staffing emergency in key prisons and the department unveiled plans to offer $10,000 hiring bonuses to try to address the staffing shortage.

The influx of contraband comes as no surprise to Jason Witmer, a former inmate at three Nebraska prisons who still interacts with prisoners through his work at a nonprofit group.

Witmer said he suspects most cellphones are smuggled inside by staff members, and prisoners want them because they “open up the world to you” at a time when Nebraska’s prisons are imposing tighter restrictions on yard time and other privileges.

“It was always there, but I think it’s escalating,” said Witmer, who was released in 2016.

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This article has been updated to correct comments attributed to Nebraska’s corrections director about an inmate with a sharpened metal object hidden in a body cavity. A corrections department spokeswoman says Director Scott Frakes was referring to an experience from a previous job in Washington state, and that incident involved an inmate, not a visitor.


Harvard High school plays home to haunted house

HARVARD — Clowns with distorted faces wandered around the playground at Harvard High School Friday night. One cackled maniacally while swinging on the swing set. Another stood quietly in dark recesses underneath a slide.

The student guide, dressed as a deceased child with a creepy doll, instructed the haunted house visitors to slide down a slide before they could leave the playground. However, she added, they would need to steer clear of the clowns.

Harvard High School received a Halloween-inspired makeover over the weekend as part of a fundraiser for the school’s fine arts booster club.

The Haunted Halls of Harvard High was an interactive haunted house that depicted a fictitious gas leak and its aftermath. The haunted house was open Friday and Saturday.

Fine art students played their part in the fundraiser, jumping out of their hiding places to spook patrons along the roughly 30-minute tour.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Aspen Binder shows some gooey science projects to Allee Jarzynka, her mother, Jessica Jarzynka and Kasen Gampel at Harvard High School’s haunted house Saturday.

“I’m just excited to pop out of a box and scare everyone,” said Hannah Harms, a sixth-grader at Harvard High with a fake bullet wound decorating her head.

The haunted house was sponsored by Clef, a parent-run group in Harvard, to help pay for the school’s musical equipment and trips that promote the fine arts. This is the first time Harvard High School has put together a haunted house.

Story Schwenk, president of Clef, and 50 student and community helpers put on the haunted house after considering the idea for a few years. Schwenk said the haunted house gives back to the community by providing entertainment during the Halloween season.

“The community gives us a ton, so we try to give it back,” Schwenk said.

Putting a twist on the classic haunted house, each group had a guide to show them the way around the building, including a destroyed science lab, a makeshift detention hall and an unfinished shed the shop teacher was working on. In order to advance between each area, visitors interacted with the set and actors, like touching a slimy desk or sliding down a slide in a playground overrun by clowns.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

A creepy clown played by Ethan Piper scares Leticia Gomez at Harvard High School’s haunted house Saturday.

Brothers Caleb and Brodin Gaughen were two of the first people who went through the haunted house. Caleb had graduated from Harvard High earlier in the year while Brodin is a seventh-grader at the school.

“I love it,” Brodin said, shortly after running from “the principal” chasing them out of the playground with a chainsaw.

The Haunted Halls of Harvard High was Brodin’s first haunted house. Caleb told his brother he would take him to more haunted houses in the future.

Caleb said he enjoyed the haunted house, but partially because he got to see friends from when he went to the school.

Blake Thompson, activities director, helped start the haunted house, then gave the reins to the students. Putting together a haunted house was a good learning opportunity for students, Schwenk said.

Part of the designing process included students walking through the haunted house to catch where things could be fixed. Students figured out ways to reuse costumes and props from previous theater shows.

Schwenk said collaboration was another challenge, because students had different ideas about how to approach challenges or build the set.

Ultimately, having a chance to practice theater and drama skills in a unique setting was a big reason the school put a haunted house together, Schwenk said.

The haunted house originally was going to be inside the school, but the fire marshal expressed concerns about safety and the group decided to move it outside only a few days before opening night. That meant a quick redesign, on top of building the set Friday, when the students didn’t have school.


News
Showcasing local creativity

For the last 18 weeks, Hastings Public Library patrons were able to make everything from coasters to glass and aluminum sheets printed with photos in the library Makerspace.

The Makerspace, in the library’s basement, had expanded equipment offerings thanks to a grant. The Nebraska Library Commission was awarded a National Leadership Grant of $530,732 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the partnership project with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Innovation Studio, Nebraska Extension, Regional Library Systems and local public libraries.

The equipment travels between Nebraska libraries.

Several pieces made using that equipment were on display Saturday morning in the Makerspace to showcase opportunities.

Erica Rogers, library assistant, the staff member who oversees the Makerspace, has a sense of pride looking at everything she helped patrons make.

“People who say ‘I can’t do that,’ well look, yes you can,” she said. “I think that’s a nice sense of accomplishment for them. We’re really encouraging the maker movement and that’s that step outside your comfort zone. You can do things and it’s not as hard as it looks.”

therrman / Tony Herrman/Tribune  

Items Helen Bunde made using the Hastings Public Library’s Makerspace equipment are on display Saturday morning during a Makerspace Showcase.

Hour-long certification sessions were required for the “big six” pieces of Innovation Studio Makerspace equipment: laser cutter, CNC router, sewing machine, embroidery machine, vinyl cutter, 3-D printer and heat press. The certification sessions walked the participant through how to use the machine safely, how to use the programs that run the machine, how to change out materials when applicable and how to set up the equipment.

In addition to the “big six,” other new equipment on hand through the end of October include a laminator that uses pouches for items such as luggage tags; a smaller button maker with more options; an Arduino kit — an open-source hardware and software program that designs and manufactures single-board microcontrollers; soldering kit; additional audio equipment and additional green screen equipment.

The new equipment supplemented the library’s existing Makerspace equipment that was installed as part of the renovation that was completed in October 2017.

Hastings had the additional Innovation Studio Makerspace equipment from mid-June through the end of October.

“I think it’s been used really well,” Rogers said. “The community’s been really supportive. I’ve seen a lot more fresh faces come in, a lot more repeat people come in and using some of the equipment. They’re really excited to do entrepreneurial things.”

A few of the Makerspace regulars were on hand during the showcase, working on projects.

therrman / Tony Herrman/Tribune  

Items Helen Bunde made using Hastings Public Library Makerspace equipment are on display Saturday morning during a Makerspace Showcase as Bunde (left) and library assistant Sarah Uden work in the background.

That includes Helen Bunde of Hastings, who was receiving assistance from library assistant Sarah Uden to set up the computer that works in tandem with the laser cutter.

Bunde was working on a design for a glass plate.

Several of the small wooden and cork cutouts she made using the laser cutter were displayed.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said of the Makerspace. “It’s a good place. We need some place like this to come to do different projects. The (library staff members) are really helpful.”

Bunde has used every piece of Makerspace equipment except the sewing machine.

“And I’ve got one of them at home,” she said.

The laser cutter is her favorite.

“I like working with the wood and the cork,” she said. “It’s really good.”

Bunde visited several of the other displays during the showcase.

“I think it’s wonderful what they do,” she said

Rogers said a lot of people have been using Makerspace equipment to make presents for Christmas and birthdays.

“That’s been nice,” she said. “People like the idea of the Makerspace, but they kind of forget about it and this kind of rejuvenated that and was bringing people back in again.”

Now that the grant period is ending all of the temporary equipment is leaving.

The Makerspace will be closed Nov. 1-11 to allow that additional equipment to be moved out.

The closure also will allow for the installation of a new heat press and a new laser cutter. Those have proven to be two of the most popular pieces of Makerspace equipment.

The new heat press and laser cutter are models selected for their durability.

“As a result, that was at the top of my list when I was writing proposals, to see if we could get some stuff,” Rogers said.

She will work on policies and what kind of trainings will be required.

The library is adjusting hours to have more appointment hours available for additional Makerspace equipment trainings. Information is available at www.hastingslibrary.us.

Several tote bags and T-shirts — the graphics on which were affixed using the heat press — were on display during the showcase.

Rogers wore a Backstreet Boys T-shirt Saturday she made using the heat press.

“There’s a lot of things you can do,” she said.


Tribland ready for pheasant and quail season

RIVERTON — As fields turn yellow with plants preparing for winter, pheasants and quail hide in the ground cover.

Early in the chilly morning, the bird dog and hunter venture into the land with hope of flushing out the birds.

Pheasant season in Nebraska began Saturday.

“It was a celebration,” said Ruth Jackson of Riverton, remembering what pheasant hunting was like when she was younger.

Jackson helped fuel the hunters with a breakfast and lunch Saturday at the American Legion Hall in Riverton. She remembers pheasant hunting as a time to celebrate a harvest well done.

Her mother helped start the hunters breakfast in Riverton and Jackson has helped continue it.

About 43 of the hunters stopped in for breakfast of coffee, eggs and toast. They showed their appreciation for the homemade food provided by the women’s fellowship of the Riverton Congressional Church and over $500 was made to support the church’s upkeep and missions. Soup and pie were provided for lunch.

Many of the hunters got to the American Legion Hall before the sun rose, meeting old friends and making new ones until after the sun was up. The time-honored tradition of bird hunting is now more about socializing and enjoying company than it is about putting supper on the table.

This year, pheasant and quail hunting is less about celebrating a harvest well done and more about taking a break, due to a wet year that has pushed back planting and consequently harvest, Jackson said.

Chuck Whitney, a certified professional accountant in Hastings, nonetheless began the first day of the season on a good foot, seeing a few birds before noon Saturday morning.

Whitney and his posse, dressed up in camouflage, hunter’s orange and Huskers gear, were hunting on their friend’s private property near Walnut Creek after going to the hunter’s breakfast in Riverton.

Their curly, black-haired bird dog also wore hunter’s orange as it ran through the field looking for birds.

Whitney said that while they hoped to snag a few birds for the first day, it was mostly a chance to hang out with his friends, grill burgers and watch the game, something the group has been doing for several years now.

Whitney said they expect hunting to be good this year, especially for quail.

The group has picked a good spot for pheasant, according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The southwest and south central parts of the state are expected to have some of the highest density of pheasants and quail in the state, especially near the rainwater basin wetlands.

NGPC is asking hunters to look at the public access atlas this year to find locations they hunt.

In the 2019-20 Upland Gamebird Hunting outlook, the July Rural Mail Carrier survey reported a 14% decrease in pheasants, compared to 2018. Quail abundance indices also were reported at 21-37% lower.

The southwest and panhandle areas are expected to provide the best hunting grounds for pheasant. The Republican River region is expected to be the best in the state for quail. Clay and Fillmore counties are also good alternatives for quail.

Because of the wet year, hunters also should be prepared for wet fields.

NGPC is also challenging hunters this year to to introduce or reintroduce someone to hunting. Hunters can take a photo and submit an entry form to be entered into a prize drawing for hunting gear, gift cards and a crossover utility vehicle.

Pheasant and quail season ends Jan. 31, 2020.

In 2016, NGPC announced the Berggren Plan for Pheasants, designed to grow the pheasant population and increase the amount of public access land, with goal of ultimately providing a better hunting experience for everyone.