In the past 2 1/2 years, erosion of the Department of Correctional Services has worsened, a 23-year veteran staffer told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Friday.
Brad Kreifels, a sergeant at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, testified he has seen staff morale, and inmate and staff safety decline. Wages, mandatory overtime and a perceived lack of support for staff are major factors, he said.
Several staff members and others testified at a Judiciary Committee hearing on an interim study resolution (LR172) by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart concerning department recruitment and retention efforts.
Later in the day, the Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee met to hear testimony from Corrections Director Scott Frakes and others.
Carla Jorgens, a corporal at the penitentiary, told the Judiciary Committee she was tired and afraid.
"I'm tired of watching my co-workers being taken out of the prison on gurneys," she said. "I'm tired of seeing inmates assault my co-workers."
She's also tired of having to work 10-hour days just to ensure her safety, only to be told she must work six more hours, she said. She watches co-workers work 16-plus-hour days.
"The prisons are not safe to work in for any hours, let alone forcing someone to work 16-plus hours a day," she said.
Several staff members said they can be charged with abandoning their posts if they refuse to work mandatory overtime, even if they have already worked multiple days of voluntary overtime.
"If we are being forced to choose between our family obligations and our jobs, a lot of times our families come in second," Jorgens said. "It shows in our faces and it diminishes our spirit."
Staff, inmates and the public are all at risk, she said.
One of the issues that hasn't set well with some prison staff members is changes in segregation of inmates.
Kreifels said a bill (LB598), passed by the Legislature in 2015, took away some options staff members once had to control inmate behavior. The bill required that as of July 2016, restrictive housing would be limited by rules established by the department.
"The sad truth of the matter is that inmates no longer understand what the word 'no' means," Kreifels said, because they know and staff members know there will be little or no punishment for offenses.
Wishart conducted an email survey Oct. 6, sent to about 1,788 Corrections employees systemwide, including administration, and got 623 responses as of noon Wednesday.
The survey, which was not scientific, showed 38 percent of respondents had worked one to four days of overtime in the past month, 25 percent had worked five to nine days of overtime, and 37 percent had worked 10 or more days of overtime.
Fifty-five percent said they were looking for another job, and 72.5 percent said they would not recommend the job to a friend or family member.
Eighty-two percent said they did not believe Gov. Pete Ricketts supports their needs as a Corrections employee, and 85 percent said the same about the Legislature.
"It's undeniable, after reading through this survey, that we have a pay, morale and leadership issue," Wishart said.
One of the No. 1 solutions that came up in the survey was the need for merit and longevity staff raises, she said. So she's drafted legislation to do that systemwide.
"While I commend the intentions of Director Frakes to tackle staff turnover at ... Tecumseh, and to pay for it through overtime savings, I believe the problems with staff recruitment and retention are not confined to one or two facilities," she said.
Mike Steadman, with the Nebraska state workers union, suggested that the department go through its files of former employees to ask them to return, offering them step raises commensurate with their experience, rank reinstatement, and pared-down training that includes only what is new since they left.
That does not violate the union contract and could be done immediately, he said.
In afternoon testimony to the oversight committee, both Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, who is on the Judiciary Committee, and Nebraska Ombudsman Marshall Lux testified on the importance of legislative oversight.
What continues to happen in Corrections is intolerable and inexcusable, Krist said.
"We don't have 10 years. We probably don't have two. We have a lawsuit facing us from the ACLU," Krist said. "Decisive action with a sense of urgency, I would appeal to you, is necessary at this point."
Several committee members acknowledged the progress the department has made.
Frakes told them the management and day-to-day operations of a prison system are difficult work. And the challenges associated with that often dominate the social commentary and public policy conversations about prisons.
But he reiterated the progress the department has made.
His concern, he said, is that if people focus solely on the challenges, it sends the wrong message to the more than 2,000 dedicated men and women who work there, impacting employee morale. It also sends the wrong message to inmates, reinforcing the perception that nothing is working.
"I can assure you this is far from the truth," he said.
Eight of the state's 10 prisons are successfully filling vacancies and retaining staff, excluding the penitentiary and Tecumseh, he said. But there is still work to do with turnover and compensation.
The hiring bonuses for the penitentiary and Tecumseh should result in fewer vacancies, he said. The merit pay at Tecumseh should reduce turnover.
"I'm incredibly proud of my staff. I feel their pain," he said. "This is my 36th year now of doing this work. And I have experienced ... much of what they talk about in 29 years working in prisons. So I do get it."
The progress the prisons have made is all about the staff, he said.