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In 2015, a riot resulting in the deaths of two inmates broke out at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Tecumseh, Neb. Several inmates and facility staff were also injured in this terrible event. After a tragedy like this, one question should be on every jail administrator’s mind: How can we make jails safer?

According to an article written by Paul Hammel for the Omaha World Herald, inmate idleness was one of the contributing factors that led to the uprising. Hammel wrote that 1,000 inmates in the correctional institution were disgruntled due to a lack of jobs, education and training programs.

Additionally, Hammel interviewed the mother of a Tecumseh inmate who said her son joined Alcoholics Anonymous as a way to pass the time, since there weren’t enough jobs available for every inmate in the facility.

At an institutional level, overcrowding is making facility administration more difficult. From reduced parole outcomes to the general degradation of the prison environment, overcrowding has wrought havoc upon not only Nebraska, but US corrections as a whole.

Program Enrollment Makes Parole Easier

Educational programs and jobs make jails safer by supplying inmates with meaningful occupations. Unfortunately, institutional overcrowding makes these programs harder to enroll in, and also discourages parole-seekers.

According to an article published by the ACLU, “Prisoners can’t complete the parole board’s requirements because there are too many prisoners for far too few programs and classes. Instead, prisoners serve more time than is needed and are released without any supervision or supports to help them transition back into the community.”

Keep in mind that a significant portion of the US inmate population are non-violent offenders. States like Oklahoma have enacted policies to reduce prison overcrowding by saving correctional facilities for only the most violent offenders. Oklahoma’s policy relegates non-violent, low-level convicts to substance abuse or mental health programs, instead of hard time.

By reducing the overall inmate population, more inmates will have access to education and training programs. Education classes could help these inmates achieve a GED, college credit toward a post-secondary degree, or vocational training, to ultimately help them land a good job after their sentence is over.

Educational Access has Room for Improvement

According to Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education by Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders and Jeremy N. V. Miles, “Data from the BJS 2005 Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities indicate that 66 percent of state correctional facilities offered literacy or 1st-4th grade education programs, 64 percent offered 5th-8th grade education programs, 76 percent offered secondary or GED, 50 percent offered vocational training, 33 percent offered special education, and 33 percent offered college courses.”

Because educational programs vary from state to state, it’s difficult to make conclusive statements about nationwide program access. However, this study also referenced a declining number of inmates participating in educational programs. This decline could be attributed to a widespread lack of program availability due to overcrowding, although it could also reflect a reduction in spending. Regardless, in order to make jails safer, jail administrators should strive to reduce overcrowding and encourage educational program participation.

Local NGOs Could Help Make Jails Safer

Here in Nebraska, local groups and charities have already stepped-up to help inmates reintegrate into society. In many ways, these NGOs (non-governmental organization) represent rehabilitative blueprints for jail administrators to learn from and draw upon. There are 10+ organizations in Nebraska that serve this purpose, including:

  • Opening Doors to Success
  • Good News Jail & Prison Ministry
  • Friends & Family of Inmates – NEPEN
  • Crossover Prison Ministries
  • Compassion in Action
  • ReLeasT Ministry
  • Society of Saint Vincent de Paul Omaha
  • African-American Empowerment Network
  • Destination…Dad
  • Bridges to Hope

All of these organizations help inmates after they are released from a correctional facility. For inmates who had no access to programs while they were on the inside, these organizations can bridge the gap. However, preventing future riots and ensuring the long-term success of inmates requires more than merely supporting them after they’re released. Broadly speaking, the corrections industry needs to reduce overcrowding to make jails safer, and the only way to do that is with buy-in from all parties. NGOs, local constituencies, inmates, and law enforcement alike must come together to solve this problem. In the face of widespread cooperation and coordination, institutional overcrowding stands no chance.