By Ian Simpson
(Reuters) - A U.S. agency will investigate a melee at a Nebraska maximum security prison in which two inmates were killed, the second deadly incident at the facility in less than two years, the state's prison director said on Friday.
The disturbance at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution on Thursday came as Nebraska prisons face overcrowding, lack of staff and increased violence among inmates, officials and legal observers said.
Corrections director Scott Frakes said the Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections had agreed to investigate the unrest in which about 40 male inmates seized part of a housing unit.
The two prisoners were killed as inmates fought among themselves, trashed toilets and furnishings, set mattresses and other items ablaze and smashed windows before security officers restored order, Frakes said at a news conference
"We need a thorough review of what occurred as well as any environmental factors that may have contributed to the incident," Frakes said.
No staff were injured and authorities are investigating the disturbance in Tecumseh, about 50 miles (80 km) south of Omaha, for possible criminal charges. It was not disclosed how the inmates died, but Frakes said staff had left the housing area when the unrest began.
Frakes said Thursday's unrest was more contained than a deadly riot in May 2015 that saw up to 200 inmates ransack two housing units and two prisoners were killed.
Nebraska's 10 prisons held about 5,100 inmates, or 157 percent of the facilities' capacity, on average in the third quarter of 2016, according to a corrections department data sheet. Another 143 prisoners were housed in jails.
Frakes said increased use of parole was easing overcrowding, but reforms were being slowed by such problems as high levels of inmate violence and staff shortages. For example, the five employees on duty in the unit where the unrest took place were all working on overtime, he said.
"As an agency, we have a long way to go," he said.
In a statement, the Nebraska office of the American Civil Liberties Union said it had documented hundreds of cases of inmates who had been denied health care and access to rehabilitation programs, been assaulted or put in solitary confinement instead of receiving mental health care.
The ACLU urged state lawmakers to approve comprehensive reforms, adding, "It is not a question of whether litigation will be filed, it is a question of when."
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Gareth Jones, Bernard Orr)