Neb. prisons struggle to fill vacant positions

The DOC's new report recommends hiring 138 more COs, which poses a fiscal challenge, particularly given the state's current weak tax revenues

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. — The State of Nebraska has talked long enough about the staffing problems at its prisons.

It's time to fix them.

Last week's inmate assaults that sent nine Lincoln Correctional Center employees to the hospital are simply the latest in an alarming trend that should spur state action.

In the first six months of this year, the state prison system recorded six assaults on prison staff that caused serious injuries. That is more than the whole-year tallies for 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Total assaults are also up sharply, from 78 in all of 2013 to 85 in just the first six months of 2016.

Most of the assaults appear linked to two causes: staffing shortages — which trigger too much mandatory overtime, staff resignations and limit inmate movement outside of their cells — and increasingly aggressive inmate behavior.

State Prisons Director Scott Frakes blames a single inmate who decided to lash out for the Lincoln assaults. But his own staffing study indicates that the facility needs more help. The study recommends adding 44 officers at Lincoln Correctional Center, more than for any other prison.

Systemwide staffing problems extend back years, to past governors, Legislatures and prison directors. Gov. Pete Ricketts appears to understand his obligation to tackle these problems soon.

The Corrections Department's new report on staffing recommends hiring 138 more security officers. Hiring on that scale — at a cost of $11 million to $14 million in new, annual state spending — would pose a fiscal challenge, particularly given the state's current weak tax revenues.

But the prison system is running out of reasonable alternatives. Many of Nebraska's nonviolent criminals are already being diverted to probation. The Parole Board is more aggressively releasing eligible prisoners. The Legislature just spent $26 million to add space to some of the state's crowded prisons, on top of new spending on inmate substance abuse and mental health counseling.

The Corrections Department is offering more incentives to first-time employees and trying to find additional cost-effective ways to reward longer-term employees for staying on the job, including a $500 one-time bonus.

Those initiatives will take time to help, but the state's prisons are bursting, housing 5,150 people. That's up 19 percent over the past decade. They're now at nearly 160 percent of designed capacity.

Prison leaders will need more than new positions to resolve staffing problems.

Members of the Legislature's special committee on prisons, who grilled Frakes during Wednesday's public hearing, have said the state needs to improve base pay and longevity pay for prison employees to fill more than 200 current openings — pay increases that would improve the allure of new positions, as well. Frakes acknowledged that the prison system was unlikely to improve its staff hiring and turnover without addressing pay and benefits. Without those changes, as Frakes said, the department is "basically treading water."

Turnover among prison security staff jumped from 19 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in 2015. Last year, the prisons hired 400 new people in protective services, but 387 employees left.

Ricketts plans to meet today with Mike Marvin, executive director of the state employees union, to discuss wages and benefits for prison employees. Frakes said the governor's proposal would "go a long way toward addressing our retention issues."

The governor has offered a sound idea of negotiating with prison employees as their own bargaining unit, instead of folding them in with workers at the Beatrice State Developmental Center, regional centers and youth detention centers.

Prison workers probably warrant special treatment, given the problems they face. Nebraska State Patrol troopers have their own union because of the job's unique challenges and dangers.

Increased salaries for other state employees in the prison workers' "protective services" bargaining unit can wait. What matters now with prisons is inmate, employee and public safety.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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