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ACLU Sues Nebraska Over Unconstitutional Prison Conditions

by Matt Clarke

On August 16, 2017, the ACLU of Nebraska, ACLU National Prison Project, Nebraska Appleseed, National Association of the Deaf and two law firms, DLA Piper and Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, filed a federal class-action suit against the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS), Nebraska Board of Parole and various state officials, alleging that conditions in NDCS facilities violate prisoners’ constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12132 and the Rehabilitation Act, 28 U.S.C. § 794.

The 87-page complaint, filed on behalf of 11 prisoners, included harrowing accounts of maltreatment at the hands of NDCS officials. At its core are claims that NDCS facilities are overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed. At 5,228, the state’s prison population is around 160% of its capacity of 3,275. This “extreme” overcrowding reportedly has resulted in “needless suffering.” Additionally, the Board of Parole was accused of disproportionately screening out prisoners with disabilities and failing to provide accommodations for disabled prisoners.

“For over twenty years, Nebraska state prisons have been overcrowded, under-resourced, and understaffed. The result is a dangerous system in perpetual crisis,” according to the complaint. Court documents allege prisoners are frequently denied medical, dental and mental health care. The treatment they receive often comes after long delays, causing physical and mental suffering or – in the case of prisoners contemplating suicide – resulting in deaths.

Prisoners with physical disabilities such as blindness, deafness or paralysis are often denied medical devices needed to assist them with their disabilities. Those lucky enough to receive items such as wheelchairs, canes, crutches, Braille books, talking alarm clocks and access to American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or TTY phones do so only after long delays. Frequently, the assistance devices are confiscated by staff – especially when disabled prisoners are placed in isolation. NDCS facilities, even those built after the ADA was enacted, lack mandated disability-assistance devices such as wheelchair ramps and grab bars in toilets.

The suit also claims that solitary confinement is overused. Minor, nonviolent infractions often result in placement in segregation, and mentally ill prisoners are held in solitary for behavior that is symptomatic of their psychiatric conditions. In lieu of mental health treatment, suicide attempts are punished with segregation as incidents of self-mutilation. That may be the reason why a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report found the suicide rate in Nebraska prisons was 30% higher than the national average.

The complaint further alleges that prisoners in isolation, including juveniles, have been held in five-point restraints for days on end, placing their lives at risk. Prisoners in solitary are routinely denied medical care; for example, a prisoner who repeatedly complained about chest pains and shortness of breath was left to die of a heart attack alone in his cell. Another was denied treatment for diabetes, resulting in 90% blindness in one eye.

Conditions are overcrowded in segregation cellblocks. The placement of two prisoners in one isolation cell, where they are confined together in an area smaller than a parking space, has resulted in injuries and deaths. General population is also overcrowded in NDCS facilities and some prisoners are forced to sleep on common-area floors, on plastic beds known as “boats.”

These conditions have led to additional crowding as prisoners are unable to receive programming required for their release on parole, thus they remain incarcerated.

In January 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Rossiter denied in part and granted in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. The court dismissed with prejudice all § 1983 claims brought directly against the NDCS and the Board of Parole, but allowed other claims, including those against state officials named in their official capacities, to proceed. The case remains pending. See: Sabata v. Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 4:17-cv-03107. 

Additional sources:,,,,, Associated Press


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Related legal case

Sabata v. Nebraska Department of Correctional Services