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Focusing on Nebraska's young violent offenders. (CT Feature).

The Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility is a maxi mum-security institution that opened in August 1998. Built at a cost of $10.7 million, it was designed with a capacity of 68 general population and eight special management beds. Today, it is operating slightly above capacity.

Situated on 15 acres not far from Omaha's Eppley Airfield and the Missouri River, the facility by state law is intended to house offenders younger than 21 years and 10 months who have been convicted as adults. The current population is all male and ranges in age from 15 to 20.

The creation of this maximum-security facility has provided Nebraska with the unique opportunity to operate a prison that specifically addresses the behaviors of young violent inmates in a setting that separates them from older, more sophisticated multiple offenders. Staff proudly point to the initial accreditation from the American Correctional Association in August 2000, when the facility scored 99.7 percent. In fact, the Violent Offender Truth in Sentencing training curriculum developed by ACA uses several ideas taken from the operation of NCYF, dubbing that portion of the training, "The Nebraska Plan."

Tailored to Inmate Needs

While the tobacco-free facility operates under the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services' policies, rules and regulations, many procedures and programs are tailored to the needs and challenges of the teen-age inmates. For example, the recreational, mental health, medical, religious, substance abuse, alternatives to violence and volunteer programs are all designed to specifically address youthful offender issues in a setting that provides both small group and individual counseling for inmates. Department heads easily adapt their programs to this population since they had expressed an interest in working with youths prior to their employment at NCYF.

Staff have created a structured educational and work environment that is respected by the inmate population. A strict dress code including institution-issued khaki pants, shirt, boots and belt has been established and is enforced daily. The interior compound is closed when school is in session so inmates can focus on their schoolwork. Inmates who fail to attend school or work (there are several work opportunities available, including food service, porter duties, teacher aides, recreation assistants, groundskeepers, etc.), or become disruptive are separated and counseled by staff.

Personalized plans, which include school/work, programmatic, mental health and substance abuse requirements, are carefully tailored to the background of each inmate, with constant follow-up checks by unit management staff. Each general population living unit has a caseworker station and a general office for the unit's case manager, substance abuse counselor and mental health practitioner. An education specialist participates in both units and institutional-level classification meetings. The staffing design and their physical location promote teamwork and help eliminate the gaps between staff and staff programs, which facilitate inmate manipulation. As a result of this structure and a dedicated educational staff, inmates make tremendous advancements in their reading and math skills and achieve GED scores at the highest levels.

None of the inmates have ever failed the GED exam, and the facility has the highest test scores for correctional programs in the state, according to educational coordinator Mark Jensen. "NCYF is unique in that inmates are compelled by their personalized plans to attend classes three hours a day," he says. "All inmates are students." Metropolitan Community College of Omaha is under contract to provide educational services to the facility. Each month, the staff average 4,500 contact hours in adult basic education and 2,000 contact hours in life skills classes.

Inmates sign an educational program agreement containing the terms and conditions they must meet. They are required to participate in class and complete assignments. Teachers frequently assign homework. Completed assignments must adhere to teachers' instructions and expectations.

Classes are conducted in individual classrooms by full-time teachers. The curriculum has included college credit courses, which are encouraged for inmates who qualify. Earned college credits are transferable to any accredited college or university in the state. Recent course selections included critical thinking, philosophy, ethics, marketing and business law. Although budget cuts will eliminate the current roster of college courses, the teaching staff are developing a curriculum to be used in its place.

As in public schools, inmates receive quarterly progress reports. These are reviewed with the inmates by the education staff and parents may speak with staff via telephone about their child's progress. A lack of academic progress can result in additional learning center time or individual tutoring sessions with student teaching assistants. "Students who refuse to put forth effort will be held in noncompliance with their program agreement," Jensen says. "A statement of noncompliance will likely result in a loss of privileges, a loss of good time or other administrative action."

Project HEART

Project HEART is another educational opportunity available to select inmates. Launched in December 2000, the project matches dogs that are not adoptable due to behavioral issues, such as being disobedient or uncontrollable, with inmates who agree to train, feed, shelter, groom and control them. To be eligible for the program, inmates must have a high school diploma or GED and reference letters from staff. They also must have successfully completed a formal interview and must not have been found guilty of Class-i misconduct, such as assault, drug/alcohol use or weapon possession, during the previous six months.

Three dog handlers are paired with dogs for a six-week period. A trainer from the Nebraska Humane Society comes to the facility three times per week to teach positive reinforcement techniques. The inmates' writing skills are enhanced through writing reports and maintaining a daily log, in which they record details regarding the dogs' health, eating habits and exercise.

A kennel on prison grounds has three indoor/outdoor runs, running water and a tub for bathing the dogs, food storage and a grooming area. Inmates may keep their dogs in their cells in a small portable kennel during the day, or they can bring them on leash to the classrooms or to any programming they attend.

Once the training period is complete, the dogs are tested and receive a Canine Good Citizenship Award. To date, no dog has failed, although a few have been removed prior to testing and replaced. These dogs are referred to the Nebraska Humane Society. Many staff and inmate families have adopted the dogs. If the adoptive family requests, the inmate who trained the dog is allowed one time to speak with them via telephone to explain the training techniques and help with the animal's transition to its new home. This provides the inmate with some form of closure, as well, having to give up the dog he named, cared for and trained. Kathleen Engel, director of operations with the Nebraska Humane Society, says the program is a win-win situation. "It pairs homeless shelter dogs with youthful offenders and results in a brighter future for both," she says.

Recreation

Recreation is another area of prime concern to NCYF staff. The size of the facility allows inmates to participate in individual activities, as well as form teams and leagues in some sports and events. The areas devoted to recreation are bright, clean and attractive. The gymnasium, for example, features murals of sporting events and athletes painted by an artist from the community who volunteered his services and used inmates' ideas and assistance.

The opportunity to form teams and organize leagues helps the inmates develop leadership skills, says Gregg Kay, recreation manager. "By the time they are released or transferred to another facility, they have become captains and role models in the program," Kay says. "Having a brother employed at the Omaha Correctional Center, a medium-security prison for adults, he informs me all the time of how well some of our former inmates are doing in OCC's recreation program."

Inmates learn teamwork, trust, dedication, motivation, respect and how to control negative emotions, often resulting in friendly relationships, which may not have developed Outside of recreational activities, Kay says. "I have never had to make recreation mandatory. The inmates are eager to participate and will try new events, even if they know they might fail at first."

While sporting activities can lead to intense competition and anger, the inmates are taught restraint and respect. "When an inmate loses his temper during a recreational activity and I must do my job as an official or correctional employee," Kay says, "nine times out of 10, the inmate will approach me the next day to apologize for his actions. I believe they apologize not because they feel they must, but because of the respect that has been built by being consistent, honest and fair."

Kay and recreation specialist Kay Chamberlin have a combined experience of 18 years working in correctional recreation. They have developed programs that include art and music contests, weightlifting competitions, track and field, obstacle course competitions, flag football, softball and an annual 10K run in which both inmates and staff participate. The recreation department also facilitates legal aid classes and maintains a unique law library on CD-ROM.

In addition to the daily recreational programs, the recreation department organizes basketball leagues and chess, checkers, racciuetball and ping-pong tournaments during the holidays to keep the inmates occupied and to help them cope with the holiday blues. For their efforts, inmates can receive a Certificate of Achievement, which, for many of the youthful offenders, may be the first time they receive any form of positive reinforcement.

Food arid Medical Services

The food service department supervises 20 inmates in the preparation of approximately 80 meals three times daily. The kitchen uses a standardized five-week cyclic menu approved by a registered dietician. Menus are based on 2,700 calories per day and meet all nutritional requirements. This is done at a cost of approximately $2.70 per inmate per day. Food services also operates a canteen with a selection of personal hygiene products, food and miscellaneous items inmates may purchase. The canteen sells approximately $2,000 worth of products monthly with the profits going to the inmate welfare fund to purchase recreational items.

Medical services staff include a health care coordinator and two registered nurses, with coverage seven days a week. There is a substance abuse treatment-outpatient program to help inmates establish and maintain an alcohol-and drug-free lifestyle. Random urinalysis tests are conducted weekly. There has been only one positive test since the facility opened.

Mental health programs have been developed to meet the cognitive and emotional needs of the specific age group, says Steve Ehrhardt, mental health practitioner. The program includes group and individual counseling, crisis intervention, psychiatric referrals and community referrals. "Because of the smaller population at NCYF, inmates spend a minimal amount of time waiting for available groups," he says. "This ensures that inmates have the ability to achieve the maximum mental health benefits during their stay here."

All inmates are involved in individual psychotherapy based on their specific treatment needs. These needs are outlined in an individualized treatment plan. All inmates meet with their primary therapist at least once per month and two or more meetings a month are encouraged by the therapist. Inmates may request to speak with therapists at any time. The facility's mental health staff comprise five mental health practitioners/counselors and one psychologist. A licensed mental health practitioner is on call after hours to assist during a crisis. A psychiatrist from the Department of Correctional Services will assess inmates who may be in need of psychotropic medications--an average of 10 NCYF inmates are on such psychotropic drugs.

Inmates are required to participate in a review of their mental health programming every 90 days. The review committee also evaluates an inmate's work, education and substance abuse counseling performance, as well as his institutional adjustment and behavior. Following the total team approach, the review committee includes staff from all areas of the inmate's schedule. Treatment recommendations are discussed during these reviews to ensure the inmate's needs are being met, Ehrhardt says.

Programming recommendations are initiated in the reception phase of an inmate's case management, during which time pre-sentence information is compiled along with facts gleaned from the personal interview of each new arrival. The recommendations are the basis for an inmate's personalized plan--the blueprint for his success at NCYF.

"By identifying the program needs of each inmate in the classification study and matching those needs to the proper program, it is our hope that the rehabilitation process will begin," says unit administrator Wayne Reed. "The classification study also identifies family relationships, social histories, general background information about the inmate's offenses and behavioral history."

The three housing units at NCYF are staffed by a unit administrator, unit case managers, unit case workers, and mental health and chemical dependency staff. This structure is adapted from the original unit management concept of a multidisciplinary method initiated four decades ago by Roy Gerard within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The team members attempt to not only instruct inmates on proper behavior and procedures, but also serve as role models during their stay.

"These young inmates are in a stage of adolescent development in which their primary role models are not present or who may also be in prison," Reed says. "Inmates grow to respect unit staff who treat them with a professional healing approach."

During a recent tour of the facility, one inmate was asked how the facility was different from what he expected. "I didn't want to be in prison no matter what prison it was," he replied. "But from what I've heard about other places, at least here I have a chance to better myself. I don't think I'd get that chance if I'd been sent somewhere else." That second chance, and other opportunities provided through the multifaceted programs available to NCYF inmates, are what distinguishes the institution and its staff.

Robert P. Houston is warden and Kurt Jordan is administrative assistant II of the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U4NE
Date:Oct 1, 2002
Words:2308
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