Families of former Nebraska prisoners with autism say ‘things need to change’

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – Two Nebraska families of former inmates say services for disabilities throughout the state need to improve, especially for people with autism.

Brenda Mae Stinson and Scott Shafer both have sons with autism and mental health problems.  Both sons have also been in and out of the prison system.

The parents have taken it upon themselves to advocate for their sons and say that despite the pain, they’re lucky to have connections and knowledge of the system.  Both families say they are grateful for the connections who have helped them along the way.  Without those connections, they don’t know what would have happened.

“It would have been a lot different, with a lot worse outcome, without having the knowledge of the people that I already did,” said Cody Shafer, Scott’s son.

In July 2020, Stinson was assaulted in her home by her son Austin Lightfeather, 34, after repeatedly seeking help from Lincoln Police in the days prior.

Throughout that time, she says Lightfeather had “lost touch with reality” and his thoughts became increasingly filled with delusions of fear and violence.

Around 6:05 a.m. Stinson heard what she thought was a car drive through her living room.  Upon entering the room, she saw a large man in dark clothing charge toward her.

“Then all I heard was, ‘I’m not going to let you let them kill me.’ And it was my son’s voice, I know it was my son’s voice,” Stinson said.  “A mother knows their son’s voice, after 30 years, you just know.”

Lightfeather entered the prison system in 2010.  Since his first incarceration, he has been in and out of custody. He has been in jail since the day he assaulted his mother.

Lightfeather was scheduled to be sentenced in September, but the judge decided that to determine a proper sentence, he needed to see additional testing.

LEARN MORE ABOUT BRENDA’S STORY: Lincoln mom beat unconscious by son says cries for help fell ‘unheard’

Scott’s 25-year-old son, Cody, entered the prison system when he was 19 on two felony charges.

“Growing up, having friends and interactions with people that were lasting, were very few and short to come by,” Cody said. “Lo and behold, they weren’t the greatest crowd.”

Since his time in prison, Cody says he still struggles with the “PTSD-like” impact that his time in restrictive housing had on him.

Cody expressed his gratitude for his father, who now advocates for current inmates.

“If I didn’t have an advocate like that, by my side, I don’t think anyone would have really heard what I was saying,” Cody said. “I would have felt hopeless because no one would have taken my actions, my emotions and listened to them in a concerned way and say, ‘Hey, if things have to change, let’s help this person.'”

LEARN MORE ABOUT CODY’S STORY: ‘You feel inhuman’: Former Nebraska inmate with autism shares his experience

The families and advocacy groups say that while more needs to be done in the prison system, awareness and change need to be made across all services that are available in the state.

“In addition to Autism, there are many individuals with different types of developmental disabilities that are affected by the lack of community-based services,” Disability Rights Nebraska said in a written statement.  “The complications people experience in getting access to the services they need only contributes to the overall problem, with people ending up incarcerated because of things that happened as a result of their disability(ies).”

Nearly one-fourth of all prisoners have a cognitive disability.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults with disabilities reported that they suffer from mental distress five times more than adults without disabilities.

Channel 8’s Jordan Himes sat down with Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon to discuss the reintegration services that are available to county inmates.

“We will always be looking at how we can expand and better what we do and how we serve the community and, again, be able to get the individuals that we can back into the community,” Condon said.  “But those that need to be out of the community for safety reasons.  That’s what we’ll do also.”

There is a variety of reintegration services for inmates, though there is no service designed for those with disabilities.

Condon said the programs are entirely voluntary and inmates need to be active participants to receive help.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services both declined requests for an interview.

Brad Johnson, director of Lancaster County Department of Corrections, said he could not make statements on specific inmates but did provide a written statement:

We work with many partners within our community to provide the best possible care for individuals in our custody who are in need of medical and mental health services. An integral part of our mission is providing compassionate care and I feel strongly that the staff within this department and our contracted and community partners work hard to accomplish this on a daily basis.

On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee in the Nebraska Legislature held a hearing to examine the mental and physical health care staffing at the Department of Corrections.

Sen. Steve Lathrop said he scheduled the hearing after noticing in the last legislative session that “an awful lot of the issues at the Department of Corrections are people who have addictions, are people who have mental illness, and they need care.”

Both families say they will continue fighting for themselves and others in their position.

“Things need to change,” Cody said.  “I’m not going to go anywhere, and not backing down from the battle until changes are made.”

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