‘You feel inhuman’: Former Nebraska inmate with autism shares his experience

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – A former inmate of the Nebraska prison system is looking for change to be made after an experience he says left him feeling “inhuman.”

Cody Shafer, 25, said he still struggles with the “PTSD-like” impact that his time in restrictive housing had on him.

Cody was 19 when he was arrested with two others in 2017 for a string of robberies in Seward County.  He began his sentence in 2019 on two felony charges and was discharged in 2021 after serving time in Lincoln, Omaha and Seward.

While he was incarcerated, Cody spent most of his time segregated from others because of his autism and mental health diagnoses.

“They put me into a room where you didn’t technically have a bed, it was just a slab of concrete in the middle of the room with two cameras in there… You feel inhuman, you feel like a lab pet,” he said.  “It hurts.  And the worst part is I know other people are experiencing this day in and day out.  And yet other people are seeing this and not saying, ‘This is wrong.'”

The state does not use solitary confinement, as defined by Nebraska law.  But inmates with disabilities or mental health problems are often placed in what the state calls restrictive housing.

Inmates placed in restrictive housing are kept separate from other offenders, and their out-of-cell time is reduced to less than 24 hours a week.

Inmates in the general population group are allowed, at a minimum, 42 hours a week out of their cells.

Both the Department of Correctional Services and the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln declined to comment for this story.

Cody said that without his dad advocating for him on the outside, he doesn’t know what would have happened.

“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. And I would have felt… hopeless, Cody said.  “No one would have taken my actions, my emotions, and listened to them in a concerned way and say, ‘Hey, things have to change. Let’s help this person.’ ”

Scott Shafer, like many parents of children with autism, has taken it upon himself to advocate for his son, and now other inmates.

“I never really considered myself an activist or needing to be an activist until my son, who is high-functioning autistic, entered interaction with the justice system,” he said.  “Even before that, through the schools, I learned very quickly, I had to educate myself.  And with that education, there was almost no choice.  If I wanted to be a parent and advocate for my son, I was going to take the knowledge I was equipped with and start fighting.”

With the help of Sen. Tom Brewer, the State Ombudsman’s Office and multiple organizations nationally, Scott was able to bring attention to his son’s needs.  He said he is extremely thankful for the resources he has access to.

Scott has worked with the Seward County Detention Center to establish additional training for correctional staff and lawyers working with autistic inmates.

In the beginning of October, the state’s Jail Standards Board reached out to a national expert to take the first steps in better training staff as early as next spring.  The board declined Channel 8’s request for comment.

The new interim corrections director testified in front of the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee last week regarding allegations of poor health care investigated by the inspector general of corrections.

In recent weeks, the inspector general has released multiple reports alleging that the health care provided by the department does not meet state standards.

SEE ALSO: Nebraska inmate’s death could have been prevented, Inspector General’s report says

“People ought to get the care they need for their condition. That’s statutory; that’s required.” said Sen. Steve Lathrop.  “At the end of the last session, it became very, very clear to me 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.”

Diane Sabatka-Rine said the department does assess inmates when they are brought in to determine the level of care they need.

But Scott said that at the time of his son’s arrest, there was no screening process for autism in inmates.  He said the family had to jump through multiple hoops to get Cody’s diagnosis recognized by the state.

“I had to fight to get his outside diagnosis entered into the system, and that’s where I had to use the ombudsman,” he said. “I had to use Sen. Brewer to get them to allow that.”

But then the department lost the documentation of the diagnosis.

“So gave it to them again,” Scott said.

Nearly one-fourth of all prisoners have a cognitive disability, and over one-third require mental health care and prescription medication.

The inspector general said there are two leading factors harming the quality of health care that inmates receive.

First, the department currently has no effective way for staff to monitor medical records, causing some appointments and routine visits to fall through the cracks.

In addition, health care positions in the department currently have vacancy rates ranging between 17% and 100%, with more positions expected to become vacant soon.

Vacancies are leaving some prisons out of compliance with state standards that say facilities with over 500 inmates are required to have at least one designated doctor at all times.

Assistant Inspector General Zach Pluhacek said that “to my knowledge,” Community Corrections Center-Lincoln, which has just under 600 inmates, has never had a full-time doctor.

The department said it is actively looking for new ways to recruit employees.

Sabatka-Rine told Sen. Terrell McKinney that she would support dedication some prison units as places to provide physical and mental health care.

“I’m not sure that I will be supportive of individual standalone facilities built solely for those two purposes because I’m not sure that it would be cost-effective,” she said.

In January, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced the allocation of millions to begin building a new correctional facility.

SEE ALSO: Six sites in running for new Nebraska Penitentiary

Lawmakers have questioned why taxpayer dollars are being set aside to build a new facility rather than focus on reducing recidivism.

“A lot of individuals that have returned back and forth in NDCS deal with mental health and substance abuse issues.,” McKinney said. “And I think, as a state, it would probably be a better priority to build something or, if not build something, repurpose a facility somewhere and house individuals that deal with those issues to properly address those issues, instead of waiting until they’re within a release window.”

Both Cody and his father said they want to see change across the board but believe that more resources or education for state employees would improve the outcome for all inmates.

“We’re still at this point, they call them correctional facilities, yet they only detain you. They hold you there,” Cody said. “They don’t correct the behavior that led you to get there. That’s the biggest thing I want to see changed.”

Categories: Nebraska News, News, Top Stories