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Mitchell: Chicago woman’s death raises questions about Nebraska prison program

Updated: August 5, 2013 6:33PM

Joyce R. Meeks did her best to escape the bad guys.

In 2000, she and her husband, Leonard, packed up their three children and moved from Chicago to Lincoln, Neb. That year, Chicago had 628 homicides. Lincoln had three, the reported.

But while Meeks avoided getting caught in crossfire, on June 25 she was killed when a prison inmate in Nebraska with a history of DUI struck her vehicle as she was driving home from work.

She was 47 and was raising four grandchildren ranging in age from 6 to 11.

“To her, Chicago wasn’t the greatest place to raise kids,” noted her son, Martell Buchanan, 29. “She took it upon herself to work hard and get us out of there. I am just flabbergasted.”

Meeks was about two blocks from her home when her vehicle was struck by a van driven by Jeremy Dobbe, 35. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services confirmed that Dobbe was behind the wheel of the state’s 2011 Ford Econoline van when he hit Meeks’ 2004 Nissan Quest.

Dobbe, who was a work-detail inmate, hadn’t carjacked the van or stolen it. Prison officials handed him the keys.

Since the 1980s, “community corrections centers have utilized inmate van drivers to transport inmates to and from multiple work detail positions and to provide return transportation for inmates on work release when city buses are not operational,” according to a news release,.

Dobbe was assigned as a van driver in April 2013. He left the community correction center at 10:08 p.m. on June 25 to pick up inmates. Dobbe remains hospitalized, according to a statement from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

Prison officials are now scrambling to explain how someone with a history of DUI and reckless driving arrests qualified for driving duty.

“We need some answers as to why this even happened,” Leonard Meeks said. “I’ve never heard of anything like this in any shape, fashion or form. I assume there are correction officers getting paid to do this job.”

Next week, the Cavanagh Law Group will file a wrongful death suit in the District Court of Lancaster County, naming Dobbe and Nebraska Department of Correctional Services as plaintiffs.

“The state didn’t do its job. Their flawed policy requires them to look at someone’s past driving history, and Dobbe’s past driving history is full of DUIs and reckless driving,” said attorney Tim Cavanagh in an interview.

“Dobbe had a horrible driving record — two DUIs, reckless driving, in jail five to seven years for selling meth. Why did they give the keys to this person? The state should be held responsible and they should shut this program down,” he said.

Three days after the fatal crash, the state suspended the questionable inmate driver program and promised a “thorough review” according to a news release cited by several news outlets in Nebraska.

But so far, Dobbe has not been charged with a crime even though witnesses reported seeing the van swerve dangerously minutes before the fatal crash.

For instance, George Weaver Jr., of Lincoln, told the he “whipped into a driveway” to get out of the way.

“The way he was driving, it was like he was drunk,” Weaver told the reporter.

A review of media coverage about this issue shows people in the state are outraged. A candlelight vigil was recently held at the location of the fatal accident.

“This is a public safety concern,” Sen. Heath Mello told a reporter for last Thursday. “We need to know how they make these decisions.”

Joyce Meeks had big dreams for herself and her grandchildren. She had recently made a commitment to a healthier lifestyle and after gastric bypass surgery lost 120 pounds. She also had received a grant to study nursing.

But her life was cut short because someone failed to take his or her responsibilities seriously.

Frankly, it boggles my mind that someone who is supposed to be serving time for a crime is allowed to be out and about picking up other inmates — period.

That Dobbe had two DUIs on his record and slipped through the cracks means there are some really big cracks in that system.

“Our top priority is to get this program shut down,” Martell Buchanan said. “Nobody else’s mother or daughter or sister or brother should have to go through this.”

Visitation for Meeks will be 4-8 p.m. Friday at Smith and Thomas Funeral Home, 5708 W. Madison. A wake will be held Saturday at 10 am.; funeral service follows at 10:30 a.m. at the funeral home.

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