In prison, Nikko Jenkins was deemed too dangerous to mix with other inmates - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:28 am
STATE OMBUDSMAN'S REPORT
In prison, Nikko Jenkins was deemed too dangerous to mix with other inmates

Read the state ombudsman's report

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Update: Nikko Jenkins' mental state is again under review. Douglas County District Court Judge Peter Bataillon on Wednesday granted a hearing to determine Jenkins' competency to be tried on four counts of first-degree murder. Bataillon set the competency hearing for Feb. 12.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys will present the opinions of separate psychiatrists who have most recently reviewed Jenkins' mental state.

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In the two years before his release into the general population of Omaha, Nikko Jenkins wasn't even released into the general population of his prison.

The main reason: He was too dangerous to mix with other inmates.

Yet prison administrators launched him from their most extreme confinement — a segregated cell where he spent 23 hours a day — into the Omaha community.

They did so despite warnings from Jenkins' family, friends, judges, psychiatrists, prosecutors, Parole Board staff, even Jenkins himself.

In an email two months before Jenkins' release, Trudy Clark, an administrative assistant to the Nebraska Parole Board, wrote the director of the state corrections' mental health unit.

“This email is written from a personal level only,” Clark wrote. “Why isn't Nikko Jenkins in the mental health unit? The board is getting letters from him that he is going to eat people, specifically Christians and Catholics. This is only one of many bizarre letters the board has gotten from him. Is he being evaluated for a mental health commitment? As a taxpayer, this guy scares me to death!”

That was just one of many revelations contained in a 61-page state report released Tuesday.

With Jenkins' consent, the state's ombudsman, Marshall Lux, drilled into Jenkins' prison file to reveal a never-before-seen picture of Jenkins' volatile behavior — and prison officials' response to it, or lack thereof.

Lux said his office, which is called on to investigate the public's complaints about state agencies, issued the report because of the grave consequences of Jenkins' release.

Within three weeks of his July 30 release, authorities allege, Jenkins killed Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz and Juan Uribe-Pena in Spring Lake Park; Curtis Bradford near 18th and Clark Streets; and Andrea Kruger near 168th and Fort Streets.

In response to the Lux report, Randy Kohl, deputy director of health services for the Corrections Department, said the agency disagreed with the “factual allegations” but could not comment further because of pending litigation involving Jenkins. The family of Andrea Kruger has filed a $7.5million tort claim against the state.

Lux gave no opinion on one question that has dogged corrections directors, state officials and victims' families in the wake of Jenkins' release and subsequent arrest: Was Jenkins — who made comments about being commanded by an Egyptian god — suffering from a mental illness?

The ombudsman's conclusion: Doesn't matter.

Jenkins was clearly dangerous and clearly willing to undergo treatment under his belief that he was schizophrenic.

At a minimum, Lux said, the Corrections Department could have attempted to have Jenkins civilly committed.

Instead of a psychiatric ward, the department referred Jenkins to a social worker at its Lincoln prison in the last three months of his decade-long sentence. Lux gave credit to that social worker and numerous other state officials who sounded alarms and sought solutions for Jenkins before his release.

But ultimately, he said, Corrections failed.

“It is not our role in this matter to adjudicate issues of 'fault' in this case,” Lux wrote. “We do not have the power to negotiate the labyrinth of 'what if's.' All that we do know is that the many crimes that Mr. Jenkins is now being accused of are bone-chilling and ... this is not a situation where we can look at the (Corrections) Department's mental health system and say that the department did everything that they might have done.”

Gov. Dave Heineman said Wednesday that he had not yet read the report but will and does plan to comment on it. "Not yet. I will," he said.

State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who has been studying prison reforms, said he was alarmed by the ombudsman's finding that only about 13 percent of Nebraska prisoners are receiving rehabilitation programming such as violence reduction, anger management and substance abuse treatment. If substance abuse programs are discounted, the percentage is only about 3.5 percent.

“You can't even begin to talk about changing the good-time law, or increasing sentences, when you have such a lack of programming,” Ashford said. “All you're sentencing them to is to get worse and worse and worse.”

Among the things that Lux uncovered:

Segregation

Of his nearly 10 years in prison — after two carjackings he committed as a teenager — Jenkins spent more than half his time (58 months) in a segregation cell, essentially solitary confinement where prisoners get an hour a day outside their cells. The ombudsman indicated that there was little doubt that Jenkins had acted violently throughout his prison stay and had merited punishment.

But he asked why Jenkins was not transitioned to a less restrictive setting in his last two years in prison.

In March 2013, Jenkins was transferred to the Lincoln prison so he could work with a social worker there before his summer release. However, he remained in solitary confinement and was never admitted into a transition program created by then-Corrections Director Bob Houston. (Houston retired in the wake of the Jenkins case and several other cases of violent incidents involving released inmates.)

“By confining Mr. Jenkins to a segregation cell for the last two years of his sentence ... we can say that they did make certain that he would not harm anyone else who was living in or working in the institution,” Lux wrote. “Our corrections administrators have a responsibility not just to make their institutions safer, but to make our streets safer as well.”

Dueling diagnoses

At least three state psychiatrists have suggested that Jenkins was faking. One doctor described him as being “on stage” and “performing” as he described the voices he claimed to hear. Those psychiatrists concluded that he was nothing more than anti-social, for which there is no medication.

But other doctors have diagnosed Jenkins with a mental illness. While Jenkins was jailed in Douglas County, a psychiatrist there concluded that he was schizophrenic.

Dr. Eugene Oliveto, the Douglas County Jail psychiatrist, cautioned against casting Jenkins into society.

“Needs transfer to (Lincoln Regional Center) before his discharge to stabilize him so he is not dangerous to others,” Oliveto wrote.

Lux said that should have prompted an intervention.

“Jenkins repeatedly told DCS staff that he wanted to be civilly committed to the Lincoln Regional Center,” Lux wrote. “And ... he did so at a point in his sentence when his ultimate discharge from custody was only a few months away — which is hardly 'normal' behavior for an inmate who is hungering for freedom.”

Civil commitment

In 2013, 11 prisoners went through civil commitment processes in which prosecutors seek to commit prisoners to a mental health institution upon their release from prison. Jenkins' family appealed to Johnson County prosecutors, who followed up on civilly committing Jenkins. However, corrections officials preparing Jenkins for release transferred him from Tecumseh to Lincoln — and out of Johnson County's oversight.

“And so we are left with the disturbing image of 11 other inmates being referred to a county attorney for possible civil commitment ... but not Nikko Jenkins,” the report said.

Lack of treatment

In 2009, prison doctors prescribed psychiatric medication to Jenkins, though they didn't definitively diagnose him with schizophrenia. They also continually monitored and checked on Jenkins.

Then came December 2009. Jenkins quit taking his medication. And then he assaulted a Tecumseh corrections officer while on a furlough to his grandmother's funeral.

He was returned to Tecumseh. Soon after, a prison psychiatrist heard his claims that an Egyptian serpent god that he calls “Opophis” made him assault the guard. The psychiatrist doubted those claims and diagnosed him as “anti-social.”

Jenkins repeatedly asked to be hospitalized for treatment in the prison mental health unit at Lincoln.

He was never sent there. In 2012 and 2013, most of the mental health checks of Jenkins consisted of a state psychiatrist standing at his cell door and making sure he understood where he was, in relation to date and time.

“It's not treatment,” Lux said.

On March 5, 2013, Lux's office urged corrections officials to at least get him into a less-restrictive setting.

“Leaving aside the issue of whether there is a major mental illness, it does definitely appear that something is happening with Mr. Jenkins, in terms of his mental condition, and that is standing in the way of his getting the needed mental health treatment prior to his discharge. I believe we all want to help Mr. Jenkins get better before he is released into the community.”

State officials did seek follow-up opinions on Jenkins. In March 2013, Dr. Martin Wetzel evaluated Jenkins. He recommended more evaluation but said Jenkins may suffer from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The patient presents with a dramatic flair,” Wetzel wrote. “(He) has an unusual list of demands, the first of which has been placement in a psychiatric hospital.”

Wetzel said Jenkins “express(ed) repeated thoughts of harming other people in the form of cannibalism and 'waging war' but the psychiatrist questioned whether Jenkins was faking.''

He recommended that the department continue to monitor Jenkins and try to establish a rapport with him so he might be amenable to counseling.

Another psychiatrist interviewed Jenkins in April. She described Jenkins as “flagrantly narcissistic” and as a “self-aggrandizing” actor. She said she saw no signs of a serious mental illness. That diagnosis was apparently Jenkins' last before he left prison.

Jenkins insisted that he was serious about his illness and his intentions. In fact, the ombudsman's report included 2 pages of threats that prison staff heard Jenkins make, including that “he's just going to randomly go to suburban houses and start killing people outside of north Omaha” and that “he sees himself destined to be a 'homicidal maniac.' ”

To the social worker assigned to him in his last few months, he warned of carnage. And, the ombudsman noted, the social worker dutifully passed on his words.

“Not kidding,” Jenkins told her in April. “It will be bad.”

Timeline: 4 killings tied to Nikko Jenkins

Selected highlights from the ombudsman's report

Good time

18.5 months of good time lost because of assaults and other serious disciplinary problems

1 month of good time restored

Segregation time

60 percent of prison time that Nikko Jenkins spent in 23-hour-a-day segregation (58 of 97 months)

Segregation stints included:

11-month stretch, from Jan. 26, 2009, to Dec. 17, 2009

Two-year stretch, from July 19, 2011, to his release July 30, 2013

Mental Health

6: Number of psychiatrists seen since 2009, including one who met with Jenkins once to deem him fit for trial. Others had contact long enough to monitor medications, offer therapy

At least 10: Prison social workers and mental health practitioners, including psychologists, who met with or evaluated Jenkins since 2008

Early Troubles

7: Age when Jenkins first had contact with justice system and was placed in foster care

14: Age when Jenkins was incarcerated for first time, in August 2001

Ombudsman recommendations

The Department of Corrections mental health staff should prioritize identifying inmates who are or may be dangerous so they can get treatment or therapy, and re-evaluate them for serious mental illness before their release.

The department should provide programming ranging from mental health therapy to anger management to segregation unit inmates, who are among the most troubled and dangerous prisoners. Now, such inmates are briefly checked once a month to assess whether they maintain a grip on reality, and they don't receive rehabilitation programming.

The department should develop detailed transition plans and programs for all inmates who have spent a prolonged period in disciplinary segregation.

A process should be set up to identify inmates who ought to be referred for possible mental health commitment. A layperson should make the final decision so it is based on the danger posed by an inmate, as well as a mental health evaluation.

The department should consider privatizing its mental health care to remove the “dual loyalties” faced by prison doctors between patients and employers, and between reasonable medical practices and prison rules.

Excerpts from ombudsman's report

“Inmate Jenkins has expressed having ongoing homicidal ideations and has made threats to hurt others once he is released from incarceration. He went into detail as to how he would kill others, similar to the recent Von Maur shootings. ... He is a very dangerous individual.”

— Report from Connie Boerner, a prison mental health professional, in August 2008

“Mr. Jenkins' assault of a correctional employee on Dec. 17, 2009, was definitely a watershed event in his history with corrections. Mr. Jenkins also exhibited a tendency at times to injure himself, including on Aug. 17, 2009, when a DCS sergeant reported that Mr. Jenkins threatened to choke himself, saying, 'I have a evil half and I'm going to kill it.'”

— Ombudsman Marshall Lux

“Prolonged segregation of adult inmates with serious mental illnesses, with rare exceptions, should be avoided due to the potential for harm to such inmates.”

— 2012 report from the American Psychiatric Association, cited by ombudsman

“Sadly, I am well aware that there is nothing in this report for the families of the victims of Mr. Jenkins' alleged crimes. There are no answers here that can give them comfort, or that can ease their pain, or that can explain in cool, rational terms why their loved ones were lost.”

— Ombudsman Marshall Lux

“Because of vulnerability to other inmates, or inability to comply with regulations, mentally ill inmates are frequently housed in protective or punitive segregation, where the isolation and enforced idleness lead to further deterioration in their condition.”

— Position paper of the American Association of Community Psychiatrists

“He was diagnosed by Dr. (Eugene) Oliveto with schizoaffective disorder vs. paranoid schizophrenia and in his last evaluation, it was recommended by the psychiatrist that he be transferred to the Lincoln Regional Center for treatment before being discharged for 'stabilization so he is not dangerous to others.' ... It is requested that Mr. Jenkins continue to receive mental health treatment at a facility (if possible) and if paroled, mental health treatment to be a condition of his parole. He has expressed to this writer that he desires to 'get well' and would like to get the treatment he needs.”

— December 2010 letter to State Parole Board from Denise Gaines of the Douglas County Department of Corrections

“Mr. Jenkins was locked up for 23 hours per day, and was, by definition, separated from most normal human contact with others for months at a time. He was also isolated from all but the most rudimentary programming that might otherwise have been made available to him. ... Inmates in segregation are not allowed to access to (prison) programming, even though they often are some of the most troubled and dangerous inmates in the entire system.”

— Ombudsman Marshall Lux

“It does definitely appear that something is happening with Mr. Jenkins, in terms of his mental condition, and that is standing in the way of his getting the needed mental health treatment prior to his discharge. I believe we all want to help Mr. Jenkins get better before he is released into the community.”

— Letter from state ombudsman to state corrections officials on March 5, about five months before Jenkins' release

“We have reviewed your Dec. 9, 2013, report entitled “Performance of the Mental Health Component of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services As Represented By the Case of Nikko Jenkins.” Thank you for directing it to me. NDCS disagrees with the factual allegations, but due to pending litigation we must decline to respond at this time.”

— Dec. 20 letter from Dr. Randy Kohl, deputy director of health services, Nebraska Department of Corrections, responding to Dec. 9 letter from ombudsman

State Ombudsman Marshall Lux's report

Contact the writer: Todd Cooper

todd.cooper@owh.com    |   402-444-1275

Todd covers courts and legal issues for The World-Herald.

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