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Corrections director addresses staffing, safety concerns at Nebraska prisons
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Nebraska’s top corrections official on Wednesday spoke publicly about the worsening staffing shortage at state prisons for the first time since workers detailed its harrowing impacts on daily operations, safety and inmates’ well-being last month.

Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, acknowledged the crisis, highlighted progress in union negotiations and answered a litany of questions from lawmakers on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Despite challenges, “I’m confident both short- and long-term solutions will be identified and will put NDCS on a sustainable path forward,” he said.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln proposed the study that led to Wednesday’s hearing. She’s on the Appropriations Committee and said her goal was to understand what it will cost to adequately staff existing facilities. That’s needed, she believes, before considering additional facilities.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration has proposed building a 1,600-bed, $230 million prison to replace the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

A project already underway will add a 384-bed high-security unit and 32-bed mental health unit at the combined Lincoln facility and is expected to be complete in June 2022, according to Corrections spokesperson Laura Strimple.

If the staffing crisis does not improve enough by next summer, Corrections will close existing living units and shift to the new space at the combined Lincoln facility, Frakes said.

Staffing has been an issue since before his tenure, Frakes said, but has been especially difficult for the past few months.

He pointed to the same labor shortage faced in other industries. The state's inspector general for the corrections system previously said the economy has had an impact, but that the stage was set for the current crisis due to a lack of sufficient action over several years.

High turnover and a decrease in applicants has led to more than 625 staff vacancies, Frakes said. There are about 430 vacancies in protective services — security and custody staff — out of 1,300 total positions, according to Frakes. So, about a third of those positions are unfilled.

The three largest prison complexes in the state are under staffing emergencies, prompting moves to two 12-hour shifts a day from three eight-hour shifts so that security posts can be filled with fewer employees. The Tecumseh prison and penitentiary in Lincoln have been under emergencies — originally pitched as temporary — for about two years. Staffing emergencies for the combined Lincoln Correctional Center and Diagnostic and Evaluation Center were announced this summer.

More recently, the situation has escalated at the combined Lincoln facility and Tecumseh prison. In September, NDCS announced the Lincoln facility would shift to consolidating activities to four 12-hour days — Monday through Thursday. Friday through Sunday, inmates are rarely out of their cells with no programming or visitation.

Earlier this month, the same change was announced for the Tecumseh prison. Frakes said that will take effect Monday.

“We are operating now in a situation where the safety of those individuals who are incarcerated and the individuals who work there is less than it should be — there is more of a risk to safety for all of those individuals,” said Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington, after talking through the details of the crisis' impact on an already vulnerable inmate population.

Frakes called that a “fair statement.”

There’s no single solution, Frakes said. Along with compensation, he mentioned recruitment and advertising efforts.

Last week, the state reached a tentative agreement slated to provide significant pay increases to some corrections employees. The tentative deal is with the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, which represents about 600 non-custody corrections employees, such as nurses and food service workers. That represents “progress on one important piece of the puzzle,” Frakes said. 

Negotiations are continuing with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents state corrections security staff. The union is reviewing an offer that includes a 25% to 35% increase in compensation for represented protective services staff, he said.

However, union president Mike Chipman said that offer includes stipulations it can’t accept, such as tying the increase to retention rates.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln on Wednesday raised a concern she has voiced previously: that the administration intends to let the prisons fail so private entities run them instead. Frakes said he does not support the operation of prisons as private entities.

“I have no interest whatsoever and won’t support and won’t be a part of having prisons run by private entities,” he said.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, cited an email from former State Ombudsman Marshall Lux, who suggested that the prison staffing crisis will likely worsen — in part, he said the issue is rooted in job environment, working conditions and job-applicants' expectations rather than simply pay, though he believes the staff do deserve more money.

Lux also advised that it would be "irresponsible for policy-makers to make a commitment to spend a quarter of a billion taxpayer dollars to build the Department a new maximum security prison that it cannot staff."

Lathrop echoed some of Lux's written input during the hearing. 

“Even when we raise the pay, I’m not sure we’re gonna solve the problem," Lathrop said. "And if we don’t solve the problem, we won’t have the staff to staff more facilities or more beds. And that’s the thing that has me very concerned as we’re going into the next session."

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Watch now: NU officials say they're looking at fixes for pedestrian bottleneck outside Memorial Stadium
  • Updated

If Saturday's down-to-the-wire loss to Michigan wasn't frustrating enough for Husker fans, imagine being stuck in a 30-minute traffic jam before even getting to your vehicle.

That's what some fans reported along Stadium Drive in the moments after Nebraska's 32-29 loss to the Wolverines on Saturday night. The gridlock essentially left hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans standing shoulder to shoulder, trudging forward only in small steps while buffeted by those trying to make progress in the other direction.

University officials say the pedestrian traffic jam was rare, but not unheard of, the result of a combination of factors that doubled the frustration of many fans on their way home.

First, the Huskers were playing the Wolverines under the lights of Memorial Stadium in a nationally televised game.

The prime time slot on ABC brought higher production to the telecast, including more TV trucks packed with tools and toys along Stadium Drive where they could plug into the west side of the stadium.

Then, the back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire game kept fans in their seats until the final minute, prompting most of the 90,000 people in attendance to leave at nearly the same time.

Blocked from turning to the east by the $155 million football training facility now under construction, those who left North Stadium were forced to turn west onto Stadium Drive.

On their way downtown or to the Haymarket, the North Stadium ticket holders ran into fans from the rest of the stadium attempting to head north over the footbridge toward the North Bottoms.

In the end, thousands of people remained at a standstill on Stadium Drive, squeezed between the stadium and fences protecting the Champions Club, waiting for a lane to open up so they could continue to their destination, in some cases taking nearly half an hour to trudge the length of a football field.

Some savvy fans sought breathing room by going back into the once crowded stadium.

“It was one of those perfect storm scenarios,” said Capt. Aaron Pembleton of the University Police Department.

A week earlier, the crowd’s exodus from Memorial Stadium following the Huskers’ night game against Northwestern went smoothly, which Pembleton attributed to an easy Nebraska win and a smaller TV footprint that opened up space for fans to head in their direction of choice.

But last Saturday’s traffic snarl isn’t the first time officials have seen this happen, said Matt Davidson, associate athletic director for event management.

There have been a handful of other games where similar conditions have existed, Davidson said, as well as the Garth Brooks concert at Memorial Stadium in August, when fans essentially all left at the same time.

“We recognize this is serious and that it’s happened before,” Davidson said. “But we’re always looking to make improvements and keep the needle moving in the right direction.”

The situation prompted emails from fans concerned at navigating a choke-point on their way home.

Davidson said Husker Athletics is working with campus police and the Lincoln Police Department to develop a plan to alleviate the issue, adding much of what’s been discussed in the days since Saturday’s game will crystallize in the coming weeks.

That might include something as simple as telling people in certain sections of the stadium to exit out of certain gates, or directing fans seated in North Stadium to leave through East Stadium if they intend to go south.

Discussion has also included moving vendors from locations on Stadium Drive to reduce snags for pedestrians, or dividing the street to keep traffic moving more freely in both directions.

Husker Athletics expects to announce its plan to address congestion on Stadium Drive the week of Oct. 25. The Huskers are scheduled to play Purdue in their next home game on Oct. 30.

“This was the perfect storm, but we’re not going to set back on our heels and say hopefully this doesn’t happen again,” Davidson said. “If we see a problem, we’ll look at it and see how we can improve the fan experience and fan safety.”

Social Security checks getting boost
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WASHINGTON — Millions of retirees on Social Security will get a 5.9% boost in benefits for 2022. The biggest cost-of-living adjustment in 39 years follows a burst in inflation as the economy struggles to shake off the drag of the coronavirus pandemic.

The COLA, as it's commonly called, amounts to an added $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates Wednesday from the Social Security Administration. It's an abrupt break from a long lull in inflation that saw cost-of-living adjustments averaging just 1.65% a year over the past 10 years.

With the increase, the estimated average Social Security payment for a retired worker will be $1,657 a month next year. A typical couple’s benefits would rise by $154 to $2,753 per month.

But that's just to help make up for rising costs that recipients are already paying for food, gasoline and other goods and services.

“It goes pretty quickly,” retiree Cliff Rumsey said of the cost-of-living increases. After a career in sales for a leading steel manufacturer, Rumsey lives near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He cares at home for his wife of nearly 60 years, Judy, who has advanced Alzheimer's disease. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Rumsey said he has also noted price increases for wages paid to caregivers who occasionally help him and for personal care products for Judy.

The COLA affects household budgets for about 1 in 5 Americans. That includes Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, nearly 70 million people in all. For baby boomers who embarked on retirement within the past 15 years, it will be the biggest increase they've seen.

Among them is Kitty Ruderman of Queens in New York City, who retired from a career as an executive assistant and has been collecting Social Security for about 10 years. “We wait to hear every year what the increase is going to be, and every year it's been so insignificant,” she said. “This year, thank goodness, it will make a difference.”

Ruderman says she times her grocery shopping to take advantage of midweek senior citizen discounts, but even so price hikes have been “extreme.” She says she doesn't think she can afford a medication that her doctor has recommended.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins called the government payout increase “crucial for Social Security beneficiaries and their families as they try to keep up with rising costs.”

Policymakers say the adjustment is a safeguard to protect Social Security benefits against the loss of purchasing power, and not a pay bump for retirees. About half of seniors live in households where Social Security provides at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.

“You never want to minimize the importance of the COLA,” said retirement policy expert Charles Blahous, a former public trustee helping to oversee Social Security and Medicare finances. “What people are able to purchase is very profoundly affected by the number that comes out. We are talking the necessities of living in many cases.”

This year’s Social Security trustees report amplified warnings about the long-range financial stability of the program. But there’s little talk about fixes in Congress, with lawmakers’ consumed by President Joe Biden’s massive domestic legislation and partisan machinations over the national debt. Social Security cannot be addressed through the budget reconciliation process Democrats are attempting to use to deliver Biden’s promises.

Social Security’s turn will come, said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee and author of legislation to tackle shortfalls that would leave the program unable to pay full benefits in less than 15 years. His bill would raise payroll taxes while also changing the COLA formula to give more weight to health care expenses and other costs that weigh more heavily on the elderly. Larson said he intends to press ahead next year.

“This one-time shot of COLA is not the antidote,” he said.

Although Biden’s domestic package includes a major expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision care, Larson said he hears from constituents that seniors are feeling neglected by the Democrats.

“In town halls and tele-town halls they’re saying, ‘We are really happy with what you did on the child tax credit, but what about us?’” Larson added. “In a midterm election, this is a very important constituency.”

The COLA is only one part of the annual financial equation for seniors. An announcement about Medicare’s Part B premium they pay for outpatient care is expected soon. It’s usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise gets eaten up by health care. The Part B premium is now $148.50 a month, and the Medicare trustees report estimated a $10 increase for 2022.

Economist Marilyn Moon, who also served as public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, said she believes the current spurt of inflation will be temporary, due to highly unusual economic circumstances.

“I would think there is going to be an increase this year that you won’t see reproduced in the future,” Moon said.

But policymakers should not delay getting to work on retirement programs, she said.

“We’re at a point in time where people don’t react to policy needs until there is a sense of desperation, and both Social Security and Medicare are programs that benefit from long-range planning rather short-range machinations,” she said.

Facebook expands harassment policy
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Facebook will expand its policies on harassment to remove more harmful content, the company said Wednesday in its latest change following congressional testimony from a whistleblower who faulted the social media giant for not doing enough to stop harmful content.

Under the new, more detailed harassment policy, Facebook will bar content that degrades or sexualizes public figures, including celebrities, elected officials and others in the public eye. Existing policies already prohibit similar content about private individuals.

Another change will add more protections from harassment to government dissidents, journalists and human rights activists around the world. In many nations, social media harassment has been used in efforts to silence journalists and activists.

Lastly, the company based in Menlo Park, California, announced it will ban all coordinated harassment, in which a group of individuals work together to bully another user. That change will apply to all users.

“We do not allow bullying and harassment on our platform, but when it does happen, we act,” Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety, wrote in a blog post.

The changes come amid mounting criticism of the company’s handling of hate speech, misinformation and negative content. Concerns about harassment range from teenagers bullying each other on Instagram to the coordinated abuse of journalists and dissidents by groups linked to authoritarian governments.

Last week, former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen told Congress that the company has done too little to address its responsibility for spreading harmful content, and too often chooses profit over its users' best interests.

Days later, the company announced that it would introduce new features designed to protect kids, including one encouraging them to take a break from the platform.

Celebrities, even those who profit handsomely off Facebook and Instagram, haven’t been shy about criticizing the company.

In an interview earlier this year with The Associated Press, singer and actress Selena Gomez said she began pressing tech companies like Facebook to clean up their sites in 2017 after a 12-year-old commented on one of Gomez’s Instagram posts: “Go kill yourself.”

“That was my tipping point,” she said. “I couldn’t handle what I was seeing.”