Prison watchdog says “staffing crisis” costs millions in OT; raises safety concerns

(Graphic by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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September 12, 2018 - 1:50pm

Employees working inside Nebraska’s prison system, especially those in closest contact with inmates, continue to quit in record numbers.



THE REPORT

CLICK HERE to read the full report.


TURNOVER & OVERTIME

Charts: OIG 2018


EMPLOYEE SURVEY

TSCI: Tecumseh State Correctional Institution
NSP: Nebraska State Penitentiary (Lincoln)
LCC: Lincoln Correctional Center
NCCW: Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (York)

Charts: OIG 2018


 

They’ve told the state’s prison watchdog they do not feel safe or appreciated. The resulting staff shortages are costing state taxpayers millions of dollars in overtime.

That information is included in the annual report of the Office of the Inspector General for the Nebraska Correctional System (OIG). It is the office monitoring prison performance for the Nebraska Legislature.

In the past year, 59 percent of the corrections officers at Nebraska’s prisons quit their jobs while overtime in the Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) doubled in just four years. 

The report states “after the 2016 OIG report declared that NDCS was facing a staffing crisis, the situation has not resolved itself.”

Data and statistics included in the review come as a sharp rebuke to the ambitious goals laid out in 2015 by Governor Pete Ricketts after hiring Scott Frakes to lead the state’s struggling prison system. In their strategic plan designed to “chart a new course for corrections,” goals included retaining employees, reducing overtime, and keeping employees safe. 

Three years later, Doug Kobernick, the official serving as a watchdog for the Legislature, has this assessment:

“The strategic plan had certain goals as far as its turnover rates and other measurements and they have not met any of their goals so far.”

Kobernick’s office, established in 2015, provides state senators with an independent overview. The report from his office is required annually.

Topics identified as problems in this year’s report include staff turnover, overtime, job dissatisfaction and concerns for personal safety.

In response, department director Scott Frakes said, “he and his team will review the report and consider the inspector general’s recommendations.”

Data reviewed by the inspector general found about a third of the employees from throughout the organization were quitting every year.

“Those turnover rates are quite high,” Kobernick said. “When you zero in on some of the specific positions for turnover rates, we're looking at 40, 50, 60 percent.”

In 2016 NDCS presented a report to the Legislature in response to proposed legislation attempting to curb overtime within corrections. The department wrote “organizations typically view turnover rates of 12-15% as a healthy and normal part of business operations. Turnover levels in excess of 15%, however, may indicate instability and create management difficulties.” 

The report went on to say NDCS was “optimistic that our recruitment and retention efforts will further increase this downward trend and we will continue to track and report overtime data” setting a target of reducing turnover among key security and unit staff “to 28% or lower by the end of FY 2016.” 

Two years later, turnover in those jobs is closer to 60 percent, the highest level of any job description in the state’s prison system.

Turnover, according Kobernick, can put inmates on edge, risking conflict.

Employees quitting at the highest rate work most directly with the prison population, including guards, corporals and caseworkers who work with prisoners with things like meeting goals set for parole and release from prison.

Kobernick said “since they interact every day, they're the ones that can make the lives of the inmates operate more smoothly and efficiently and safely. If they have a connection, an understanding of their role, it just makes the whole facility run better.”


THE RESPONSE

 

NDCS Director Scott Frakes and Governor Pete Ricketts (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)


RESPONSE FROM THE OFFICE OF GOVERNOR RICKETTS

“The Governor’s Office is reviewing the report issued yesterday, and will consider its contents as we continue to pursue Corrections initiatives that protect public safety.  Over the last few years, the Governor and Legislature have made over $117 million in capital investments to expand prison capacity and programming.  With the help of innovative staffing strategies, Corrections has moved Tecumseh from 12 to 8-hour shifts at the direction of the labor relations commission.  The state continues to invest in our Corrections workforce, and the agency continues to take innovative steps to recruit the team we need to run our prisons.  The Governor appreciates the work our Corrections officers do each and every day to protect public safety.”


RESPONSE FROM THE DEPT. OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES
Sept. 11, 2018

"Director Frakes and his team will review the report and consider the inspector general’s recommendations as agency decisions are made.

Director Frakes and his team are committed to the agency’s mission to keep people safe and our vision to have safe prisons, transform lives and live in safe communities. Efforts are continually underway to improve all aspects of the agency.

As we have shared in the past, the struggle to fill positions and retain team members becomes greater when the work is specialized and includes inherent risk. Being a part of mission-driven work where you keep people safe and feel like family is what makes corrections a fulfilling career. 

In the first half of 2018, the agency participated in 72 recruiting events across Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas. We partner with the Nebraska Department of Labor and various military branches for career fairs and workshops. Hiring officers in Omaha to work at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI) began in 2017 and continues to be successful and provides additional staff members for TSCI.

Our capital construction projects are moving forward and we continue our efforts to prepare individuals for parole at the right time."


 

Replacing new, unfamiliar prison staff with workers who were familiar and potentially trusted causes friction at times. “They might be told one thing one day and told another thing another day or from one shift to another,” Kobernick says “and then they react in a negative manner a lot of times because of that inconsistency.”

Corrections continues to have difficulty filling the empty positions, despite an intensive recruiting campaign. In a statement responding to the OIG report a prison spokesperson wrote “in the first half of 2018 the agency participated in 72 recruiting events across Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas” as well as attempting to recruit veterans. No numbers detailing the success of those efforts were provided.

The department also hired 50 employees to make the daily, 70-mile commute to the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in southeast Nebraska to assist the under-staffed facility.

The result of the systemwide work force shortages in corrections is record-setting amounts of overtime paid out and added to the state budget, according to the report.  Overtime costs skyrocketed in the past four years, peaking last year at $13 million.

Kobernick cites records from the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services showing “in 2014, for those front line positions, the total overtime per month was 20,000 hours for the entire system. Earlier this year that number had increased to over 40,000” per month.

The inspector general did not break out the amount of mandatory overtime, accrued when correctional officers are required to work an additional shift to assure a security force remains on duty while providing services to the prisoners. 

There are indications the number of forced hours may be declining, according to corrections reports, but Kobernick wrote even it’s true, “that does not necessarily mean that this is a positive change in the correctional system” since workers may feel obligated to sign up for additional hours voluntarily.

The mandatory overtime “isn’t just happening once in a blue moon,” said Jim McGuire, president of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). “It is happening three or four times a week, to where they are being required to work 16 hours during the day.”

Corrections workers selected the FOP to serve as union representative on their behalf.

McGuire said the pressure to work overtime is a significant reason NDCS “cannot retain folks.”

“It’s just they can’t have a life,” McGuire said. “They are having family problems. When they are tired they are making mistakes (on the job) so the inmates are just seeing them as walking zombies and they are taking advantage of them and people are getting hurt down there.”

A voluntary survey of employees conducted by the inspector general indicates the on-going staff turnover is one of the same commonly heard concerns raised by current and past employees.

Employees at four facilities, the Lincoln and Tecumseh prisons, the women’s facility in York, and the Lincoln Correctional Center, had the chance to answer questions about job satisfaction. The results were not scientific.

When asked if NDCS was “headed in the right direction,” 10 percent at the Lincoln and Tecumseh prisons responded with a “yes” vote. The woman’s center in York had higher satisfaction rates across the board.

Reviewing the survey, Kobernick pointed to a question about personal safety. 

“If you look at the statement, "During the past month I've felt generally safe in my work environment," only 26 percent of the people who responded agree with that statement at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.”

The report does not include data about the number of staffs assaults because, Kobernick claims, NDCS is no longer regularly sharing information about assaults with his office.

In previous years corrections reported a steady increase in the number of inmate assaults on prison staff. This year the report only notes “is not comfortable with stating whether or not the number of assaults has increased or decreased” without information from the department. 

“That creates an environment where they feel unsafe and just not sure what's going to happen from day to day,” Kobernick said. 

He added has heard from staff working in specific units at the Nebraska State Penitentiary “where they put all of the difficult people.” They raised fears about “how dangerous they believe those units are because of the way they are being managed.”

McGuire, representing union workers in the prison system, said, “it wasn’t surprising at all,” adding “it’s the same stuff we’ve been hearing over and over again.

“I’m not being critical of the director (of corrections) or the governor, but they’ve been doing the same things for years and I don’t know why they think anything would change.”

McGuire added, “They need to have a complete restructuring down there on how to treat their employees.”

Among the 30 recommendations of the inspector general’s office: 

  • higher pay for corrections officers
  • extra pay for those with special training, like a foreign language.
  • required reporting of staff assaults to the Nebraska State Patrol
  • new “culture study” to address employee concerns
  • better tracking of contraband cases (drugs, cell phones, etc.)

The inspector general’s report did share some encouraging news for Nebraska’s prison system. While still overcrowded, inmate populations have leveled off in the past year. Nebraska’s prisons remain some of the most densely populated in the United States.

The report noted there were fewer inmate complaints about medical care following the arrival of a new doctor in charge. Additional rehabilitation programs for those preparing to get out of jail have been provided, earning praise from the evaluators.

In separate written responses neither the Office of the Governor or NDCS challenged any of the report's statistics or survey results.

To read the Department of Correctional Services own “progress report” on meeting its strategic plan goals, click here.

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