A $1.5 million effort to reduce staff turnover in Nebraska's prisons produced mixed results, but corrections officials say the problem would have been worse if lawmakers hadn't approved the money last year, according to a new report.
The report by the Department of Correctional Services shows a combination of successes and failures in the state's attempts to keep more experienced workers and potentially reduce the number of violent outbursts. Corrections officials submitted the report to lawmakers to document how they spent the funding increase from the 2016 legislative session.
Nebraska's prison system has faced scrutiny following a series of high-profile incidents, including two deadly inmate uprisings in a two-year period and the escape of two inmates. Critics say many of the problems stem from overcrowding and staffing shortages driven by high employee turnover.
Overall, the report found that after a year, roughly 80 percent of the employees who received payment or training were still with the department as of July 30. That's close to recent turnover averages.
"While the overall turnover situation has not improved significantly during the year the retention funds were provided, the department is confident the programs supported by the retention funds have had a positive effect on employee engagement and retention," officials said in the report.
The department used the money for training and professional development initiatives, a new employee wellness center and a one-time, $500 retention bonus for staffers in high-turnover jobs.
Training programs to help employees deal with stress and fatigue were generally well-received, and staffers voiced appreciation that managers were recognizing their concerns, according to the report.
The department also offered a $250 bonus to employees who participated in professional development programs, then raised the award to $500 amid complaints that the bonus wasn't large enough.
The retention bonus proved controversial, however, because it only went to guards, nurses, caseworkers and other employees the department deemed a priority because of shortages. Workers who didn't get a bonus "feel their commitment has not been recognized," the report said.
Corrections officials also offered reimbursement for employees to get certified as alcohol and drug counselors, but no one took advantage of the program, the report said.
Additionally, the department started paying a "commuting bonus" to employees at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution who live more than 30 miles from the prison.
The bonus, as much as $60 a month, is intended to keep experienced staffers in a prison that has faced two deadly riots since May 2015. Critics say part of the prison's turnover rate is driven by its location in Tecumseh, a town of 1,600 more than an hour's drive from Omaha and Lincoln. It's still unclear whether the payments are making a difference, according to the report.
Lawmakers approved the $1.5 million increase as a scaled-back version of legislation that would have allocated $2.5 million a year to increase worker salaries. Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, who introduced the proposal, said he introduced the measure to provide support for the employees, but the watered-down version doesn't appear to have addressed the problems.
"There are still issues down there," he said.
Corrections administrators said they appreciate the extra funding from lawmakers, but it's hard to know exactly how much of a difference it made because they tried so many initiatives at once. Outside factors may have played a role as well, including a low state unemployment rate that draws employees into higher-paying private-sector jobs.
"Within the line of work that we're doing, I think we have to acknowledge there are challenges," said Erinn Criner, the department's human talent director.
Criner said the department tries to emphasize a sense of public service with employees, reminding them that they protect public safety to create a sense of pride. Administrators also have taken steps to publicly acknowledge those who perform well, she said.
The union representing prison workers said many are still working too much overtime because of staffing shortages, which in turn contributes to high burnout levels and perpetuates the cycle.
"When you work 12- to 16-hour shifts consistently, you're not as mentally or physically sound as someone working an 8-hour shift," said John Antonich, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees.