Halfway house stories are enough for a feature length documentary:
A meth user fresh out of jail locked himself in the bedroom of a Lincoln halfway house, convinced a biker gang was coming to kill him. He tried to throw a brick through a window to get out, and when he couldn’t, stabbed himself in a suicide attempt.
Firefighters arrived to find the man had been in the bloodstained room for at least four days, with no sign that anyone was watching the house.
In another Lincoln case, 14 men were crammed into a sober house with 1½ bathrooms in south of Lincoln, causing concern among neighbors. Up to five men crammed into a bedroom in a separate Lincoln home, only to be joined by hundreds of visitors in the form of bed bugs.
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Now an Omaha man who oversees two Omaha halfway houses has been charged with a sex offense, a development that has uprooted nine parolees who must find new homes. Thomas “Mike” Wiggins, 59, was charged this week with third-degree sexual assault of a pregnant woman. He spent two days in the Sarpy County Jail.
His attorney, Glenn Shapiro, said Wiggins denies any wrongdoing. Third-degree sexual assault involves groping and is usually a misdemeanor: Wiggins’ case was bolstered because the alleged victim is pregnant.
But the upheaval has shone the spotlight on a branch of Nebraska’s correctional system that hasn’t garnered as much attention as the state’s overcrowded prisons: the environments that parolees or ex-prisoners encounter when they reintegrate into society.
Just last month, Nebraska Inspector General of Prisons Doug Koebernick and Deputy Inspector General Zach Pluhacek filed a report with the Nebraska Legislative Judiciary Committee detailing sordid cases. and the lack of licensing and oversight of halfway houses.
“There is no central regulatory or oversight authority for these homes,” the report said. “It created a sort of patchwork of expectations when it came to basic standards and conditions (and) programming.”
In fact, oversight is so lax that inspectors wrote they couldn’t say how many buildings are used as transitional housing across the state.
“We estimate this number between 100 and 200, possibly more,” the inspector general wrote. “Similarly, we are not aware of a full accounting/breakdown of dollars paid to these facilities by state agencies.”
The facilities, which include apartment buildings, converted hotels and often homes in residential areas, run the gamut: for-profit and not-for-profit; pro-programming and no-programming; those who receive state dollars and those who do not. Some for-profit landlords charge high rents or require high security deposits; others are more reasonable.
The World-Herald’s attempts to determine who oversees the houses have been met with an alphabetical soup of agency suggestions. A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Corrections referred a reporter to the Nebraska parole board. The Nebraska Parole Board supervises parolees, but does not have a licensing role in the houses in which they live.
Another official suggested the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services would issue licenses, but a spokesperson said that was not the case. Another state official said any property regulations would be enforced by local city councils, county councils, planning departments or housing inspectors.
State Senator Terrell McKinney of Omaha said the state must take control of transitional and transitional housing. In recent years, a Lincoln state senator introduced a bill that would centralize oversight and require licensing of halfway houses and their owners, Koebernick said, but the bill is not not become law.
McKinney said he doesn’t know if a new law is needed.
“Sometimes the answer is just to get the supervising agency to do its job,” McKinney said, naming the administration of corrections and parole. “Housing is probably one of the most important things on liberation. Once we start meeting basic needs like housing and transportation, we can help people succeed in terms of employment and life. ‘other needs.’
Koebernick said sometimes the problem is figuring out which state agency should be responsible. Some former prisoners fall through the cracks because they have served their sentence and are no longer under the jurisdiction of the state.
Koebernick suggested that a state agency should be tasked with overseeing, licensing and regulating any halfway house, especially in cases where the owner receives state funding.
Central monitoring could also help facility owners and the state flush out false complaints, the inspector general said. Sometimes a complaint is filed and an establishment is suspended for months, only to find out that the complaint was based on false or unproven allegations.
“This is causing significant disruption to the facilities,” the inspector general said.
Wiggins’ case disrupted the lives of the nine parolees who lived in his two homes. In light of his arrest, Nebraska Parole Board Chair Rosalyn Cotton said parole officials were transferring the men.
Wiggins was convicted in Texas in 1986 of aggravated sexual assault with a weapon. He served 19 years in prison before his release.
He has since been acquitted of third degree sexual assault and forcible confinement and convicted of misdemeanor disturbing the public order. For the past decade and a half, his rap sheet has been relatively clean — until this week. A blip: A former inmate and sex offender recently sued Wiggins, claiming Wiggins improperly kept his $1,000 security deposit and refused to return it, even though the inmate had never lived in the halfway house Wiggins. Wiggins argued in court papers that he kept the $1,000 because he had reserved a place for the inmate and that it was the inmate’s fault that he had not completed the programs that would have given him allowed to live there.
A judge dismissed the inmate’s suit, noting that the inmate’s parents had posted bail; therefore, the detainee lacked standing.
It is unclear how long Wiggins ran the two houses. Cotton said she has yet to determine that.
A halfway house owner with a past felony conviction wouldn’t and shouldn’t disqualify him, Koebernick said. Several ex-convicts run halfway houses and successfully use their experience transitioning from prison to act as mentors and provide programs for people re-entering society, Koebernick said.
Bottom line, Koebernick said: Halfway houses, their landlords, and tenants should be held to standards by a state agency assigned to license owners and perform a funding and programming oversight function.
“We want to make sure that people have safe places to go after prison — places that will help them reintegrate positively into the community,” Koebernick said. “If a place is struggling, we have to ask ourselves what can we do as a state to improve that place. On the other hand, if they refuse to improve, we should make it harder for them to receive state dollars.
“Just having some general guidelines, oversight and accountability would be really healthy.”