LINCOLN — The family of a Lincoln woman killed in a crash involving a state van joined Friday in criticism of a program that allowed an inmate to drive the van.
As they prepared for her funeral next week in Chicago, the family of Joyce Meeks questioned how state corrections officials could have permitted an inmate with two drunken-driving convictions, and other driving offenses, to drive a state vehicle.
“They technically gave him the tools to do what he did,” said Meek's sister-in-law, Sheronda Buchanan of Chicago. “This was someone with a bad driving record who was endorsed by the state penal system to drive.”
The comments came after state prison officials announced Friday that they had suspended the inmate driver program pending a “careful and thorough” review.
A four-sentence press release stated that prison employees will provide the late-night van transportation for now.
The Nebraska Department of Corrections' move came three days after an inmate with a long list of driving offenses, Jeremy Dobbe, was involved in a fatal crash in Lincoln as he drove to pick up other inmates on work release.
Meeks, a 47-year-old mother of three, was on her way home late Tuesday from her job as a nursing assistant at a Lincoln nursing home. That's when the state van driven by Dobbe crossed the center line and struck her minivan nearly head on.
Witnesses said the van driven by Dobbe was swerving and speeding, and had run a red light and forced another vehicle off the road just before the fatal accident.
Since 1985, the state has used inmates to drive prisoners to and from work details during hours when city buses are not running.
Six vans and eight inmate drivers operate seven days a week from the State Community Corrections Center in Lincoln. Three vans and three drivers are used at a similar corrections facility in east Omaha.
Corrections officials in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas said they do not have similar programs that allow inmates to drive on public streets.
Nebraska's program, according to rules provided to the news media earlier this week, state that “special attention” is given to an inmate's driving record and chemical abuse history before he or she is allowed to work as a prison driver.
A corrections spokeswoman said particular attention is given to an inmate's recent driving record, though, when asked, she did not provide further explanation.
Dobbe, 35, is serving time for dealing methamphetamine. His prior convictions include drunken driving in 1998 and 2003, as well as reckless driving in 2001, willful reckless driving in 2003, driving under suspension in 2004 and careless driving in 2010.
Gov. Dave Heineman, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment Friday.
Deputy Chief Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon said Friday that his office was hoping to get results of blood and urine tests next week. Then, he said, a decision will be made about criminal charges.
A couple of issues to be explored in the investigation are why Dobbe was running late for his scheduled pickup of inmates in downtown Lincoln and why he was not taking a more direct route to the pickup site.
Condon said those questions are being investigated.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said Friday that the committee will be looking into the use of inmates as drivers as part of an interim study on prison work-release and furlough programs.
Ashford said he had not been aware of the program that allowed inmates to drive.
“They shouldn't be driving other offenders,” he said, adding that it would be different if a work-release job required driving as part of the work duties.
Ashford said work-release programs are designed to help inmates transition back into society as productive citizens. He said it would be counterproductive if such programs “make it too easy” for inmates to violate laws.
Dobbe was initially hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. He's now housed at the state prison Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln, a prison spokesman said. That is the facility where inmates are sent if they violate conditions of their work-release program.
The funeral for Joyce Meeks is scheduled for next Friday in Chicago.
Her sister-in-law said Meeks and her family had moved to Lincoln in 2002 for “a better life.”
Meeks, the married mother of two sons and a daughter, had recently begun studying to become a registered nurse and had undergone gastric bypass surgery. She had lost 120 pounds and had begun to feel good again, Buchanan said, “and then this happens.”