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Prison Oversight

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes testifies at a legislative hearing concerning the prisons system.

Employee turnover at Nebraska prisons is still high — 34 percent as of December, up from 18 percent in 2010. 

Prison staff continue to work lots of overtime — both voluntary and mandatory — more than double the hours they worked collectively four years ago. 

The number of vacant positions in the prisons has leveled off in the past year, but still is at slightly more than 300. 

Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes met with the Legislature's Appropriations Committee on Tuesday to talk about his agency's mid 2017-19 budget request.

He's asked for: 

* 29 full-time corporal and sergeant positions for fiscal year 2019, with no request for added funding;

* 35 positions in health services using existing vacancies;

* and a 100-bed, $5.8 million minimum-custody dormitory at the Penitentiary to be paid for with savings from another building project.

Frakes also fielded questions about a bill (LB871) introduced by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart that would direct the department to implement a longevity pay program for staff. 

Last fall, the department launched a pay-for-performance initiative at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, but that hasn't been evaluated, Frakes said. The hiring bonus there has been met with some complaints from existing staff. 

Any longevity pay would best be handled during salary negotiations with the union, he said, not through an appropriation.

Staff turnover is high, in part because of a tight labor market, competitive-pay issues and the negative image from incidents in the prisons over the past several years.

It costs the department $8,000 to train a new security worker.

Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner said he was concerned about the costs associated with that turnover, the pool of available quality workforce, Nebraska's low unemployment rate, and the population of areas where some of the prisons are located.

"I'm concerned that we're in a situation that's maybe not fixable," Stinner told Frakes. "But I'll leave that up to you."

The amount of overtime prison workers put in is an issue. They sometimes work multiple days in 16-hour shifts, with only eight hours between those long days.

Wishart asked Frakes if he was worried about the fatigue of those workers, managing inmates when they may have as little as four hours of sleep. 

"Of course," Frakes said. "We try to take care of staff to the degree that it's possible. ... It is definitely a concern within the business of corrections or any business where you need to work people for long hours. 

Frakes is in his 36th month as Corrections director. The average length of stay for people in that position across the country is 30 months, he mentioned to the committee. 

But he "definitely has no departure plans," he said after the hearing. 

He has come to peace with his job, its stresses and to-do lists. 

"We've still got a lot of things to work on, things we're going to fix," he said. "I still acknowledge tomorrow could be an issue that happens, because those things happen in our business and there's nothing I can do about it."

Frakes knows the staff wants more from him and has expectations they don't think he's meeting,  but, he said, "they haven't walked away from me." 

He feels grounded, understands how to makes things move within the agency and feels supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts and his administration. He even looks forward to the interactions he has with senators at legislative hearings, and the multiple of questions they throw at him, he said. 

The challenges of the department still weigh on him, but there's been progress, including with inmate-assessment tools, increases in programming and what Dr. Harbans Deol has done for health care in the year he's been there.

"I really feel like this year it's kind of like things have come together and I'm ready to face whatever comes my way," Frakes said. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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