There is a growing problem in the Nebraska prison system. Cell phones.
In 2018, staff members at Nebraska prisons confiscated more than 250 cell phones. Over half of those phones, came from the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. That's up from 80 phones found in 2015.
Across the country, there are shocking examples of inmates using a cellphone to plan an escape, orchestrate the shooting of an enemy on the outside, intimidate witnesses and run their criminal enterprise from the inside.
Some inmates aren’t shy about having one. 6 News found examples of Nebraska inmates posting videos on social media apps.
Nolan Waters of Omaha, serving a 6-8 year sentence for being a felon caught with a gun, appears in a number of videos where he’s singing to the camera from his jail cell at the penitentiary. He even posed with three other inmates in a prison bathroom.
Wahoo Police Chief Bruce Ferrell tells 6 News that the prisoners can call shots from the inside with the phones. “The inmates aren’t afraid. Some of these gang members are influencing what happens on the street from inside the facility."
Ferrell has been on the front lines investigating gangs in Omaha and the Midwest for three decades. “It’s a safety issue in the facility — it’s a safety issue on the street.” While some inmates simply want to stay in touch with family without the conversation being recorded, across the country, there are examples of inmates ordering hits and planning successful escapes.
Part of the problem, according to experts, is that inmates have no fear of punishment if caught with a cellphone. The reward of phone freedom seems to outweigh the consequences.
6 News asked Doug Koebernick, who oversees Nebraska Corrections, about possible punishments. He says it’s illegal to smuggle a phone into prison, but not to possess one.
Let’s say a visitor is caught smuggling a phone into a Nebraska state prison through their shoe: What happens? “You’d be turned over to the county attorney and state patrol for prosecution, and probably charged with a felony,” Koebernick said.
And if an inmate is caught with one? “You’d probably get some internal discipline,” he said.
That “internal discipline” amounts to inmate losing the phone and some “good time,” and possibly an extension of the inmate's sentence. Prison experts tell 6 News it doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent.
Nebraska Corrections continues to be overcrowded and understaffed. At last check, the system is 158 percent over design capacity, and 117 percent over operational capacity. “They are so understaffed that it’s very difficult for the staff to do the correct type and thoroughness of cell searches on a daily basis,” Koebernick said.
Some states criminally charge an inmate for possessing a cellphone. But not Nebraska. “If they prosecute them, they’re just going to stay in longer,” Koebernick said. “And that makes our overcrowded system continue to be overcrowded. We should probably do things for the right reason – not because it would make our system less overcrowded.”
This week, Legislative Bill 233 was introduced by Omaha Senator Justin Wayne. The bill aims to stop inmates from coordinating illegal activity using cellphones and other communication devices in prisons.