Neb. prisons still struggling with hiring, retention
Director Scott Frakes said annual turnover rates have fallen from 32 percent to 26 percent over the last four months
By Grant Schulte
LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska's corrections department is still struggling to hire and retain prison employees but has seen improvements in the last four months, the department director said Monday.
Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes made his comments during a budget hearing with lawmakers. His testimony followed a prisoner uprising Thursday that left two inmates dead at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, which has more than 50 job vacancies. The entire department has 157 job openings.
Corrections officials have said the prison was adequately staffed during the riot. But union officials say prison workers are frequently asked to work overtime because of employee turnover and unfilled jobs, which drains their morale.
"We've still got challenges in hiring at Tecumseh," Frakes told members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee.
The prison is located in Tecumseh in rural southeast Nebraska, more than an hour's drive from Lincoln and Omaha, and houses some of the state's most high-risk inmates.
Authorities on Monday were still investigating the riot but offered few new details. The incident began around 1 p.m. Thursday when roughly 40 inmates refused to return to their cells in a maximum-security unit. Frakes said staff members fled after they were threatened and isolated the inmates to half of one unit.
In May 2015, a much larger riot involving more than 100 inmates and multiple cellblocks resulted in the murder of two other inmates serving time at Tecumseh for sex crimes.
The two inmates killed on Thursday were identified Friday as 39-year-old Damon Fitzgerald and 31-year-old Michael Galindo. Police officials didn't say how or why they perished. Prisoners also damaged toilets, windows, doors and ceiling tiles in the unit, but Frakes said it wasn't extensive.
Frakes said Monday that he expects to have an outside independent investigation completed by June 1. The Nebraska State Patrol is looking into the criminal acts committed, and the National Institute of Corrections is reviewing how the incident was handled.
The department's budget request includes a $95 million funding increase to hire more officers at Tecumseh and the other prisons as well as build a new treatment center to ease overcrowding.
Frakes said annual turnover rates for the entire corrections system has fallen from 32 percent to 26 percent over the last four months, but he wants to see an even lower rate.
The department has also expanded programs to deter violence, substance abuse and other common problems, Frakes said.
"We've improved the quality of life significantly at (Tecumseh) in the last two years, but it's a work in progress," he said.
The struggle to fill prison jobs will likely continue unless corrections officials address complaints about pay and reimbursement for senior employees, said Mike Marvin, who leads the union that represents state corrections workers.
"Our problem is an inability to retain people," Marvin said.
Frakes also announced Monday that the department could get a $585,000 donation from the York Community Foundation to provide parenting services at the Nebraska Correctional Center of Women. The money will help pay for a new building to providing expanded programming to inmates.