The retirement of Robert Houston as director of Nebraska's Department of Correctional Services did not spark reflections on his 38-year career, but rather it salted fresh wounds.
Houston, 63, insisted that his retirement—submitted in papers to Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman's office on September 16, 2013—was not related to three separate incidents over the summer in which five people were killed and a bank was robbed, either by prisoners on work release or by recently released prisoners.
"Heading a prison is about risk," Houston told the Lincoln Journal- Star. "The tragedies that have occurred, they're tragedies... but those are the risks you run."
On June 25, 47-year-old Joyce Meeks was killed when the minivan she was driving was struck head-on by state prisoner Jeremy Dobbe, 35, who was driving a prison-owned van into downtown Lincoln to pick up fellow work-release prisoners.
Police allege that Dobbe—who was convicted of reckless driving in 2003 and of drunk driving in 1999, 2001 and 2003, according to online court records—was speeding and swerving when he crashed into Meeks.
Three weeks later, Meeks' family filed a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit against the state.
"The state's conduct in giving the keys to an inmate who has a history of convictions for driving is beyond me," said Tim Cavanagh, the Meeks family's attorney. "It's clearly negligent and reckless.
Police say that about six weeks later, Nikko Jenkins, who had just been released from prison weeks before, allegedly began a killing spree on August 11 that left four people dead in Omaha. According to the Journal-Star, Jenkins has a "long, violent history," and had asked for mental health treatment while in prison but did not receive it.
And just days later, on August 16, Lucius Turner—on work release from a 2007 bank robbery conviction—and paroled convicted murderer Gilbert McCabe allegedly robbed the Pinnacle Bank in the small town of Beatrice. Turner, 31, and McCabe, 35, were since arrested and charged with the robbery.
The incidents prompted criticism of Houston and the corrections department on several fronts, including the system's lack of mental health treatment and re-entry programming for prisoners.
"Clearly we've seen in the last year that mental health is a significant issue with inmates," said state Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, who noted that he worked with Houston over the summer to create a plan to better help prisoners assimilate back into society.
Others reportedly criticized Nebraska's good-time laws for allowing prisoners to serve about half their sentences if they exhibit good behavior in prison. But Ashford dismissed such criticism, saying less focus should be placed on how much time offenders spend in prison and more on helping them succeed and prepare for their release while they are incarcerated.
"[Houston] wanted to make those changes," Ashford said. "He didn't have the resources."
Houston, who was appointed corrections department director by Heineman in 2005 and earned an annual salary of $132,926, disagreed, saying he had the resources he needed, if not everything he wanted. Recidivism, he said, will happen on some level, sometimes as tragic as the incidents leading up to his retirement.
"It's still going to involve risk," said Houston, who began his career as a counselor at the Nebraska State Penitentiary and served as warden at several facilities before becoming director. "It's going to involve a high percentage of inmates residing in the community. That needs to be clearly understood."
As for the prison van accident that killed Meeks, many wondered how Dobbe—who had the job for just two months at the time of the accident—got hired in the first place.
In addition to his driving record, Dobbe was also convicted of misdemeanor sexual contact in 2002. According to corrections department policy, prisoners are ineligible to drive a prison van if they have ever been convicted of a crime that took a human life, one that used a vehicle as a weapon or a method of escape to avoid arrest, or "a sexual offense of any nature."
Corrections department spokeswoman Dawn Renee Smith said prison van drivers undergo weekly urine analyses to check for drug use, and if a prison driver is suspected of alcohol use, a Breathalyzer is administered. Smith did not, however, respond to questions about Dobbe's criminal history.
Sources: www.journalstar.com, www.sfgate.com, www.therepublic.com, The Associated Press
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