Lawmakers question roots of prison staffing problems

Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (Photo courtesy Nebraska Department of Correctional Services)
August 31, 2016 - 9:19pm

Nebraska lawmakers are asking questions about staffing state prisons. At a hearing held by a legislative committee studying prison reform, the director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services was questioned on low staffing rates and high turnover.

Keeping workers on the job is one of the biggest challenges for the state’s prison system. Turnover is high - around 30 percent at Tecumseh State Prison each of the last two years.

When asked at Wednesday’s hearing about the reason for high turnover, Corrections Director Scott Frakes said it was a combination of factors. Some workers are upset by the lack of pay raises or mandatory overtime, others are bothered by safety concerns and a feeling that the department’s culture has grown dysfunctional.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes

The department, Frakes said, has had some success recruiting new trainees to the system, but still struggles with retention.

“A third of your staff is walking out the door and you’re trying to hire them faster than they walk out the door,” summarized former state senator Steve Lathrop, who serves as counsel to the investigative committee.

Even though hiring has picked up, NDCS still had nearly 200 vacant positions across the system as of July. Frakes said programming, like recreational and religious activities, have been reduced because of staffing shortages. And he said that contributes to an increased safety risk.

“If there is nothing productive to do, people tend to get into trouble,” Frakes said.

Nine corrections officers at the Lincoln Correctional Center were assaulted last week by inmates who refused to return to their cells.

The legislative committee wants to make sure the department is asking for everything it needs to improve employee retention and adequately staff the state’s prisons. And that prompted questions about a staffing audit done by the department. The final report made drastic cuts to a draft version acquired by lawmakers.

Sen. Les Seiler, Hastings

For example, the draft suggested adding the equivalent of 47 full-time workers at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. However, the final version recommends only 24. Frakes said he determined some positions could be doubled-up or made part time.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, Chair of the investigative committee, said lawmakers don’t want to cut corners.

“Is that going to do the job then?” Seiler said. “Or are we putting paste on the wound and the wound is still there?”

NDCS will make its budget proposal in mid-September, including its funding request for new staff positions at state prisons. The investigative committee plans three more hearings before next year’s session.

Meanwhile, Director Frakes hopes that negotiations over a new labor contract with corrections officers will allow for merit-based pay raises, and improve worker retention. He said negotiations over that contract will begin with a proposal from the administration Thursday.

NET News: Nebraska Prison Reform Panel discussion of prison reform in Nebraska, featuring Sen. Les Seiler, Sen. Kate Bolz, Director of Correctional Services Scott Frakes, and Deputy Ombudsman for Corrections James Davis III.



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