The union representing corrections officers and other prison staff said Monday that understaffing and a lack of experience and training among Department of Correctional Services staff contributed to a serious assault Thursday at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.
Gary Young, attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 88, told reporters the union is pleading for help from the state or the Legislature to adequately staff the prisons to keep both employees and inmates safe.
A Corrections officer escorting a prisoner Thursday back to his cell in restrictive housing received 15 stab wounds with an improvised knife by a second prisoner when a wrong cell door opened and the second prisoner rushed out, according to reports from the department and the union.
The officer was then stomped on the head and kicked multiple times by the prisoner being escorted.
Young said the puncture wounds to the officer were not immediately life-threatening but were significant.
Three officers responded to the incident, secured the inmates and removed the officer from the area for medical treatment. The officer was treated at Johnson County Hospital and released.
Young said it is well known that the Tecumseh prison is in a state of ongoing crisis because of overpopulation and understaffing. It's a public safety issue of the highest level, he said.
"The situation is no better now than it was (at the time of the 2015 Mother's Day riot), and it's likely worse," Young said. "Corrections officers who work there will tell you that it's worse. More dangerous."
The three largest prisons — the Lincoln Correctional Center, Nebraska State Penitentiary and Tecumseh — are most days below critical staffing levels, said Carla Jorgens of Lincoln, an officer with the union.
As a result, ordinary threats of violence that are present at any prison are exacerbated, and the prison is not prepared to handle these kinds of assaults, union representatives said.
Staff in the Tecumseh housing unit that night was not experienced enough nor trained to be there, Young said.
Ordinarily, those units are supposed to be assigned only to corporals, but less-experienced corrections officers were there because of a lack of staffing, he said. And some working that night did not have the special-management unit training.
Corrections Chief of Staff Laura Strimple countered that the special-management unit was fully staffed. The three staff members directly involved in the assault were all appropriately trained, although six staff members had not received training for that area yet, she said.
Young said it is well known that one prison gang has a standing order among its members to attempt to kill corrections officers whenever the opportunity presents itself.
"The special-management unit is the most dangerous place in the statewide prison system and many of these gang members are housed there," Young said.
There are undoubtedly a high number of weapons inside the prison, he said, and the numbers of staff are inadequate to prevent their production or provide the necessary searches to protect officers and inmates.
The union also is concerned that employees in the special-management unit do not have stab-resistant vests, which can minimize the impact of stabbings and cuts.
Strimple said the department implemented the vests in another unit where inmates with a history of violence are housed and interact with staff unrestrained. Since the inmates in the special-management unit are searched and put in restraints before being escorted by staff, use of the vests was not implemented there.
"That issue will be addressed as part of the review of this recent assault," Strimple said.
Young said the union has presented multiple solutions that would dramatically turn the tide on retention in a two- to four-year period, "and the state has just refused to do it."
Those include pay plans with salary and step-schedule increases, he said, that would be competitive with Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties, which hire away many corrections officers.
Strimple said increased pay does not equate to a reduced chance for risk and it is inappropriate to say one causes the other.
"As Director (Scott) Frakes has testified numerous times, employee recruitment and retention are about more than just pay," she said. "It is also about providing appropriate training, creating a safe working environment and giving workers opportunities for advancement and growth."
Union members called their plea for increased staffing a "Hail Mary moment." Something must be done because officers are burning out.
"We know that we work in a dangerous career field, but we don't need our employer to make this further dangerous by not having us well-staffed," said Michael Chipman, union president.