November 1, 2014

Gov. Heineman denies he pressured Corrections on overcrowding (AUDIO)

Sen. Steve Lathrop (L) speaks with Gov. Dave Heineman prior to the legislative hearing at the Capitol

Sen. Steve Lathrop (L) speaks with Gov. Dave Heineman prior to the legislative hearing at the Capitol

Gov. Dave Heineman denied during a legislative hearing he put pressure on the Department of Correctional Services, leading to the miscalculation of prison sentences and the premature release of inmates.

Heineman appeared before the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee Wednesday during a seven-hour hearing at the Capitol.

The special legislative committee has been looking into the premature release of inmates from prison. Hundreds of inmates were released, because the Department of Correctional Services failed to adhere to state Supreme Court rulings on prison sentences.

Committee chairman Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha pressed Gov. Heineman on whether his desire to reduce the prison population and avoid building a new prison created the problem.

“I can only think that the pressure from overcrowding was making people do things they shouldn’t have doing over there,” Lathrop stated during his questioning of Heineman.

Heineman earlier had stated he didn’t want to spend up to $150 million to build a new prison and didn’t perceive that legislators wanted to either.

The state prison system had been at 140% of capacity when Heineman first became governor 10 years ago. Overcrowding has grown worse, now up to approximately 157% of the designed capacity of state prisons.

Under questioning from Lathrop, Heineman said he had asked then-Corrections Director Bob Houston if he could manage the prison population and stated Houston had assured him he could.

Heineman denied he put pressure on Corrections to keep the prison population in check. He insisted the problem stems from department attorneys not following Supreme Court rulings and records not being kept correctly.

“Do we need a culture change down there? Absolutely, I agree with you (on) that,” Heineman responded to Lathrop. “And that’s going to take a long period of time in a wide variety of areas.”

Lathrop criticized two programs created by Corrections officials, stating the Re-entry Furlough Program released early 162 prisoners convicted of violent crimes. Lathrop claimed both it and the Temporary Alternative Placement program created by current Corrections Director Mike Kenney were created without the proper statutory authority. Kenney created TAP to deal with five inmates released prematurely who had only days left on their sentence. It allowed those prisoners to serve the remainder of their time at home monitored by ankle bracelets and weekly visits to parole officers.

Attorney General Jon Bruning has disputed Lathrop’s conclusions about the programs. Heineman has stated he has relied on Bruning’s legal analysis of the programs.

The Department of Correctional Services ignored two state Supreme Court rulings, releasing 200 inmates early and setting early release dates for 550 others. The governor’s office and Corrections officials reported 306 inmates were released prematurely by the department. Many inmates received credit for time served in the community without incident. No inmates remain at large.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]

AG Bruning defends controversial Corrections program (AUDIO)

Attorney General Jon Bruning

Attorney General Jon Bruning

Attorney General Jon Bruning defends state Corrections Director Mike Kenney’s controversial program to deal with inmates prematurely released from prison who had very little time left on their sentences.

The defense comes as a special legislative committee prepares to hear from Gov. Dave Heineman.

The program covered five inmates released prematurely from prison with only days left on their sentences. Corrections Director Mike Kenney allowed them to serve out their time at home with monitoring bracelets and weekly check-ins with parole officers.

Attorney General Jon Bruning defends Kenney’s actions.

“Now, should he have checked with us and we could have vetted this thing and maybe done it slightly different? Maybe, but I mean it’s easy to armchair quarterback. We’re trying to clean up a very broad mess,” Bruning tells Kevin Thomas, host of Drive Time Lincoln on Nebraska Radio Network affiliate KLIN.

The Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee has been looking into the premature release of inmates from prison. Hundreds of inmates were released, because the Department of Correctional Services failed to adhere to state Supreme Court rulings on prison sentences.

The special legislative committee has heard from a number of individuals. Now, it will hear from Gov. Heineman, who it subpoenaed to testify during its hearing at the state Capitol in Lincoln this morning.

Some on that legislative committee have called Kenney’s program illegal.

“Is it legal or illegal? I don’t know. A court would decide,” Bruning says. “When people say it’s illegal, they make it sound like it’s something criminal. I mean it’s most certainly is not that.  It’s somebody in state government making a decision and I support him in it.”

Bruning has sent a letter to the committee, outlining his legal analysis of the program. [PDF of Bruning letter to committee]

Kenney earlier wrote a letter to the committee, outlining the steps that led him to create the program. It covered five of the 20 former inmates who had been mistakenly released early from prison and had six months of their sentences left. The five had from 12 to 64 days left on their sentences.

Kenney has disputed hand written notes by a former attorney at the Department of Correctional Services, George Green, that listed Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning among those attending a meeting in which he created the alternative placement program. Heineman has denied he attended such a meeting.

The Department of Correctional Services ignored two state Supreme Court rulings, releasing 200 inmates early and setting early release dates for 550 others. The governor’s office and Corrections officials reported 306 inmates were released prematurely by the department. Many inmates received credit for time served in the community without incident.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]

 

Life of Germans from Russia in Nebraska unveiled in museum (AUDIO)

Outside AHSGR headquarters are replicas of a home, church and store

Outside AHSGR headquarters are replicas of a home, church and store

A short tour reveals the hundreds of years of history of the Germans from Russia conserved at the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia headquarters in Nebraska.

A simple street sign reading, “Germans from Russia Museum” points the way toward a building housing a wealth of information.

AHSGR Executive Director Sherry Pawelko is proud of the research library and museum at 631 D Street in Lincoln.

“We have a treasure,” Pawelko tells Nebraska Radio Network. “We are an absolute treasure and we view ourselves as stewards of this important information and the artifacts that we have.”

AHSGR Executive Director Sherry Pawelko displays the volumes that comprise the Flegal Library

AHSGR Executive Director Sherry Pawelko displays the volumes that comprise the Flegal Library

A treasure the research library just received is the Flegal Library, a massive amount of research of Germans from Russia gathered by Arthur Flegal of California and donated to the library. “And it’s just an amazing collection,” Pawelko says. “We’re very proud of it.” Old and rare books, many in German and Russian, make up the library assembled over decades by Flegal in his home in Menlo Park, California. Binders bulge with information about villages along the Volga, the Black Sea, the Caucasus; migrations of Mennonites and Hittites. Maps and atlases, obituaries; all to enhance genealogical research.

AHSGR Volunteer Norma Somerheiser plays the hammer dulcimer as Pawelko looks on

AHSGR Volunteer Norma Somerheiser plays the hammer dulcimer as Pawelko looks on

Museum exhibits reveal life in a typical German village in Russia, including entertainment, such as the hammer dulcimer.

“You play by striking the strings,” AHSGR volunteer Norma Somerheiser tells us as she plays a bit. “It is the lead instrument in the German Russian band. It’s the one that you hear that makes your toes tap and you want to get up and dance.”

Music was important to the Germans who accepted Catherine the Great’s invitation to settle in Russia, both playing and singing. They carried it with them as the migrated to America and settled in Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas, eventually spreading throughout the United States. Then, there’s the books on display.

“We have books, books, and more books,” Somerheiser says. “It’s a problem, because we receive so many donations. They’re printed in German and not the German that is used today. It’s the old German printing.”

German Bibles and books on display in the museum

German Bibles and books on display in the museum

Many of the books are Bibles or religious in nature, underscoring the role faith played in the daily lives of the Germans from Russia who were quick to establish churches in America, many of which worshipped in German until only a few years ago.

Quilts, furniture, framed quotations, miniature reproductions of family compounds, maps that pinpoint German villages in Russia, brief histories of the invitation of Catherine the Great to settle in Russia. Then, the promises she gave, broken by her descendants; displays of the early days of life in Nebraska and throughout America.

Outside, replicas of a typical home, a store, a church; an indication to visitors, says Somerheiser, of the life Germans from Russia built when they moved here.

“I hope that they realize that our ethnic group came with hopes and dreams like everyone else.”

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [2:30]

Rich history of European migration to Nebraska held in Lincoln (AUDIO)

American Historical Society of Germans from Russia headquarters in Lincoln

American Historical Society of Germans from Russia headquarters in Lincoln

Tucked away in a residential area of Lincoln is a small building housing records that shed light on the history of a significant portion of Nebraskans.

They came to Nebraska from Russia, but they weren’t Russians.

They were Germans.

Many left after the Japanese-Russian War in 1906 and could see more war coming.

“They did not want their son in the Russian Army and could see the rebellion was coming, the (Russian) Revolution was coming and you could kind of envision that and so, they were very fortunate in getting out,” Sherry Pawelko, Executive Director of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) tells Nebraska Radio Network.

Pawelko overseas the documents, artifacts, and exhibits that tell the story of Germans from Russia at the AHSGR International Headquarters located at 631 D Street in Lincoln.

Statue outside AHSGR headquarters honors German families who left Russia

Statue outside AHSGR headquarters honors German families who left Russia

Catherine the Great invited her fellow Germans to move along with her to Russia with the promise they could speak German, establish their own churches and schools, avoid taxes if they worked the land for 30 years, and would never have to join the Russian army.

Catherine’s descendants broke many of those promises in an effort to unite Russia.

As times changed, the Germans in Russia grew nervous and sought opportunity in America.

Some didn’t make it.

Pawelko says her personal research at the headquarters research library shattered her misconceptions about her family’s idyllic history. She came upon the infamous “Letters from Hell”, letters from Russia to America after Germans had been dispatched to labor camps following the Russian Revolution.

“And one of the letter talks about, in the letter it talks about a Loos family and that was my maiden name was Loos,” Pawelko says. “And it talks about this family, who in the 1920s, had been sent to jail and they all died in jail of starvation and the only reason they were in jail was the fact that they were German.”

Such research is important, because few of the Germans from Russia who made their way to Nebraska spoke much about their past.

AHSGR Historical Society volunteer Norma Somerheiser reflects upon what might have been when Russian oppression grew worse as World War II approached.

“I was born in 1934,” Somerheiser tells Nebraska Radio Network. “Had I been born in Walter, Russia in ’34, I probably wouldn’t be alive now, because I would have been seven-years-old when we were rounded up and sent to those forced labor camps.”

Germans from Russia who came to America left from 104 villages and though immigration to the United States began in earnest after the start of the 20th Century, groups began making their way here in the late 19th Century.

AHSGR International Headquarters in Lincoln

AHSGR International Headquarters in Lincoln

It is estimated that the families settling in Lincoln came from 19 colonies, mostly from the Northern Volga region near Saratov. Immigrants from Rohrbach and Worms settled in Sutton in 1873. A number of Mennonite colonies, known as the Molochna colonies, in southern Ukraine, north of the Sea of Azov, moved to Nebraska. Mennonites founded a number of Nebraska towns, including Henderson in 1874.

Somerheiser says that first generation couldn’t have envisioned the life their descendants now live in Nebraska as well as Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas; throughout the United States.

That first generation settled here with the promise of land; and work on the railroads in Lincoln and the sugar beet fields in western Nebraska.

“We started with that, got a good foundation, valued our church and our education, and I think that’s what’s carried us on,” Somerheiser says.

Germans from Russia came here from the Volga River, the Black Sea, Crimea, and Ukraine.

Events in Ukraine now only highlight the harsh history Somerheiser relates when speaking to groups about their past.

“You know, it’s really difficult to talk about and people kind of shy away from wanting to hear it, too,” Somerheiser says. “But, it’s what happened and when you look at what’s going on in the world now, has anything ever changed?”

AUDIO:  Brent Martin report [3:30]

Kenney defends controversial program; denies governor knowledge

State Corrections Director Mike Kenney

State Corrections Director Mike Kenney

State Corrections Director Mike Kenney defends his controversial program to allow prison inmates released prematurely to serve out the rest of their sentences at home.

Kenney objects to state senators on a special legislative committee calling his temporary alternative placement program illegal, insisting it was the best alternative for a handful of inmates who had been living peacefully in their communities.

“I thought this was the best thing I could do as director is to not bring them back and disrupt that,” Kenney tells Kevin Thomas, host of Drive Time Lincoln on Nebraska Radio Network affiliate KLIN. “So, I looked at that statute and I believe to this day I have authority to do this.”

Kenney has written a letter to the committee, outlining the steps that led him to create the program. It covered five of the 20 former inmates who had been mistakenly released early from prison and had six months of their sentences left. The five had from 12 to 64 days left on their sentences.

Kenney writes he believes state statutes provided the latitude he needed to create the program, which required the five to wear electronic monitoring equipment and report twice weekly to parole officers.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the committee investigating the prison sentence miscalculations, contends Kenney acted illegally in creating the program.

Kenney says, in wake of accusation, he should have sought legal advice before going ahead with the program.

“Had I known at the time that I would be called a lawbreaker and it would have come to this, I certainly would have deferred to the Attorney General, asked for a specific opinion from him about the legality of doing it and so I certainly regret not doing that.”

Kenney disputes hand written notes by a former attorney at the Department of Correctional Services, George Green, that listed Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning among those attending a meeting in which he created the alternative placement program. Kenney says Heineman and Bruning attended a meeting called to discuss how to handle about 40 prisoners who had been mistakenly released early.

“I did not announce, in fact I didn’t even have the idea for this temporary release program for several weeks after that,” Kenney says. “So, no, the Governor and Attorney General had no idea that I was developing this specific, temporary alternative placement plan.”

PDF of Kenney letter to committee