LINCOLN — Nikko Jenkins’ life behind bars is again stirring controversy.
A month ago, a member of the State Ombudsman’s Office was escorted out of the Tecumseh State Prison, and briefly banned from returning, after allowing the convicted murderer to join a cellphone conversation during a visit to Jenkins’ cell.
Although ombudsman office officials are allowed to carry cellphones into state prisons, a state Corrections Department spokeswoman said that allowing Jenkins to join the call, purportedly to his attorney, was “a clear violation of the trust and working relationship” between the department and the ombudsman’s office.
“The phone was used to take a photo of an inmate and to communicate with the inmate’s attorney, allowing the inmate to join in the conversation,” said spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith. “The ombudsman did not have the authority to involve the inmate in the phone call.”
All ombudsman personnel have been banned from taking cellphones into state prisons while corrections reviews its policies, Smith said.
State Ombudsman Marshall Lux said that he was surprised that the incident, which occurred on Sept. 6, has generated such a reaction.
Lux said it has been a regular practice for members of his office to carry cellphones during prison visits, and no rules prohibit that.
“Nothing was snuck into the facility,” Lux said.
Cellphones, he said, are regularly used to take photographs of cells and record interviews, as part of the office’s job of investigating complaints by inmates about prison conditions and treatment.
Allowing Jenkins to participate in a phone call was also not outside the lines, Lux said.
“It was done for a good reason. And I cannot go into the reason without getting into what is confidential,” he said.
Lux said he was awaiting the outcome of the policy review by corrections.
The problem with cellphones, according to those in corrections, is that if they are obtained by an inmate, they can be used to set up deliveries of drugs or other contraband, organize escapes, or arrange assaults or retribution against others.
Prison policies ban members of the public from taking cellphones into prisons during visits. And corrections staff members face a Class IV felony charge if they allow an inmate to use a cellphone.
Inmates are provided access to pay telephones to call friends, family and their lawyers. Such calls made to attorneys and the ombudsman’s office are not monitored or recorded, unlike the other conversations.
Jenkins was sentenced to death for the murders of four people in Omaha shortly after his release from prison in 2013. Concerns about the lack of mental health treatment and preparation prior to the release of the mentally troubled Jenkins, and the murderous rampage that followed, prompted the State Legislature to launch a special investigation into corrections.
Before and after his arrest, Jenkins had a history of disciplinary problems within state prisons. There were multiple incidents of self-mutilation using sharp objects, including a corrections officer’s badge that he somehow obtained in his solitary confinement cell.
Two days after the cellphone incident, a search of Jenkins’ cell found an unauthorized extra mattress, two mop heads, a bottle full of bleach and a piece of paper with a swastika written on it that was “contaminated” with blood.
Smith said she could not comment on the outcome of the “misconduct report” generated by the Sept. 8 cell search.
The ombudsman’s office official and inmate involved in the cellphone incident were not identified by Smith or Lux.
But State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who heads two committees that oversee state corrections, said the inmate involved was Jenkins.
Ebke said that the incident took on greater importance because of a recent increase in the detection of contraband, such as drugs and cellphones, being smuggled into prisons.
“I think they’re just trying to clamp down on that a little bit,” she said.
After the incident, the ombudsman involved was banned from re-entering a state prison for 10 days, according to Smith. She said that other members of the office have also been told they cannot bring cellphones at this time.
A former state corrections director, Bob Houston, said that he sees no need for ombudsman officials to carry cellphones into a prison.
Houston, who now teaches criminal justice classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, also works as a court-appointed observer to conditions at the Los Angeles County Jail. That monitoring work, he said, is very similar to what the ombudsman’s office does.
“If we want to take notes, we take notes. We don’t take electronics with us,” Houston said.