The death of a Nebraska inmate in solitary confinement prompted the state to take measures to end double-bunking in its isolation unit.
Terry Berry Jr., 22, was murdered by his cellmate Patrick Schroeder, 40, who was already serving a life sentence for murder at Tecumseh State Prison. Berry was at the end of his sentence and ready to be paroled. He was described as a “very talkative and bothersome” inmate in an article by the World-Herald News Service.
Berry was serving a sentence for check fraud and kneeing a guard.
Nebraska Inspector General of Corrections Doug Koebernick called on the state to stop the practice of double-bunking inmates in solitary confinement.
Koebernick pointed to studies that found that punishing pairs of inmates with small cells—like the 7 feet by 12 feet and 7 inch cell that Berry and Schroeder shared—is risky for both inmates and prison staff.
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes disagreed, placing complete blame for Berry’s death on Schroeder.
“Mr. Schroeder had multiple avenues with which to address any concerns about his living situation, and he chose, instead, to kill Mr. Berry” Frakes said.
Frakes rejected the inspector general’s findings and has continued to double-bunk inmates in solitary, with the new addition of daily check-ups on inmates to ensure their complaints are heard. He also claimed that in his experience, double-bunked inmates are “as safe as in general population,” despite a lack of academic studies to support the claim that double-bunking can improve behavior.
Solitary confinement has been shown to exacerbate mental and physical anguish, including illnesses. Schroeder had a reputation of having a temper and spent considerable time in solitary during the last 10 years of his sentence. He has since pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for Berry’s death, claiming that his cellmate was a punk who wouldn’t shut up, according to the article.
Concern for the mental health of inmates pushed state lawmakers to pass a law in 2015 attempting to reduce the practice of solitary confinement by pursuing alternative punishments. In the last fiscal year, the average daily number of inmates in solitary confinement in the state has dropped by 11 percent.
However, Nebraska’s prisons are still the second most over-crowded in the country, with four prisons that double-bunk. The practice has been shown to be risky, yet state and county jails in several states continue it to deal with their budget and overcrowding.
“We haven’t dedicated near the amount of money we need to for the prison system” said State Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, who introduced the 2015 bill to reduce the use of solitary confinement. Despite the rebranding of the practice as “restrictive housing,” he said the punishment is “alive and well,” according to the article.
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