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At Tecumseh: Short staff, long hours, high stakes

At Tecumseh: Short staff, long hours, high stakes

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TECUMSEH -- They earn $15.15 an hour -- whether they’ve been on the job 10 years or 10 days -- to guard Nebraska’s most violent criminals.

They’re unarmed, outnumbered and often inexperienced.

They’re assaulted, spat upon, splattered with urine and feces.

They’re supposed to work eight-hour shifts but frequently are ordered to work 16, locked in their own prison at quitting time so their supervisors can fill staffing holes in the incoming shift.

All of this has been taking a toll on correctional officers -- and other prison employees -- at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Between January and mid-May, a reported 71 staffers quit Nebraska’s newest prison. More than a dozen of those departures came after last month's Mother’s Day riot.

The uprising left two prisoners dead at the hands of other prisoners and three more injured. It left the state with a $500,000 repair bill, much of that to a housing unit where prisoners tore down a wall, shattered windows and set their mattresses ablaze.

Prison administrators have said little about what started the siege. After the staff regained control and the smoke cleared, though, the issue of prison staffing -- or, more accurately, understaffing -- emerged as a prevailing problem inside the walls at Tecumseh.

"Having a stable, seasoned staff just adds to the overall culture of the facility," Corrections Director Scott Frakes said as he toured the damage with the governor. "It helps when everyone really does know how to do their job well."

But based on the numbers -- and on interviews with prison employees and union leaders that represent them -- the staff at Tecumseh is neither stable nor seasoned.

Instead, there is a cyclical, self-perpetuating problem at the prison: Too few bodies, too many demands, too many departures.

* The prison was down about 40 employees at the time of the riot, and 57 a week and a half later. Without enough staff, the prison requires officers to sometimes pull two, three or four double shifts a week.

* Turnover at Tecumseh is higher than any other state prison. The prison loses four out of 10 employees per year, or about 190 annually (based on the prison’s 483 total positions). Former employees cite mandatory overtime and stagnant pay as primary reasons for leaving.

* The departure of prison staff forces the department to fill positions with recent recruits, pitting some of the least experienced officers against the most dangerous prisoners. And more rookies are on the way: To replenish its prisons, the department plans to double the capacity of its training academy, starting in July.

There is no single fix in Tecumseh. But administrators could start to solve the problem by trying to stem the flow of resignations, focusing as much on retention as they do on recruiting, said Mike Steadman, a former prison caseworker who represents employees as a union rep.

“Tecumseh was built to take people nobody else wanted, the most assaultive, nasty inmates in the state,” he said. “It takes a very special person to go swim in that pond. When you get someone like that, you need to keep them.”

Personnel problems

The $73 million maximum and medium security prison opened near Tecumseh just after Thanksgiving 2001.

It was built to house 960 inmates, including those on death row. At the end of April, it was home to 1,008.

Even at 105 percent of capacity, it doesn’t suffer the overcrowding problems plaguing other prisons. The penitentiary in Lincoln, for example, was at 182 percent of capacity. The Diagnostic and Evaluation Center was at 335 percent.

But the prison in Tecumseh does have an understaffing problem.

As of May 21, it had more than 50 custody-level vacancies, the most of the state's institutions. It was down 31 correctional officers, 18 corporals and four caseworkers.

“It's always been an issue there,” Steadman said.

And the department is always recruiting. A billboard on Nebraska 50 has tried to lure recruits since the prison opened. The department hits job fairs and advertises on Facebook, including a post on the afternoon of the riot.

Officials have traditionally said hiring has been a challenge because the institution is deep in Southeast Nebraska -- about an hour from the workforce in Lincoln, farther from Omaha.

But the department wouldn’t need to work so hard to find new employees if it just kept those it already found, Steadman said.

The stakes inside prison walls are higher than most workplaces, and correctional officers and other custody-level staff need time on the job to learn how to navigate them.

“They screw it up, someone could die. You really have to train, you really have to get top-flight people. It’s imperative that you retain that worker.”

Pay is an issue. Officers earn $15.15 an hour, regardless of their years in uniform. In the late ’90s, the state instituted so-called step pay for custody-level prison employees, but the longevity-based wage increases disappeared after a couple of years.

So some employees living in Lincoln and Omaha look for higher pay closer to home, or they transfer to the seven correctional facilities in those two cities. Those living near the prison seek new work elsewhere in the area -- at Cooper Nuclear Station, Peru State or county jails, Steadman said.

Labor relations matter, too. And this is where labor gets nervous. Ten prison employees provided information to the Journal Star; none wanted their names in the paper. They fear for their jobs, they said.

One described what might happen if supervisors read their words and learned their identities.

“You’d go to roll call but your name wouldn’t be called. A supervisor would say, 'Come with us.' And you'd be escorted out of the building.”

Most characterized an environment where managers view front-line staff as disposable, replaceable, not to be trusted to make decisions or judgment calls.

This is the mentality, one longtime employee said: “You do what we say, you don't complain or you're out the door.”

Julie Kuhl spent a decade as a clerk and secretary at the prison. Now she’s president of the Southeast District of NAPE, the union that represents employees at Tecumseh.

Finding and hiring new employees hasn’t been the real problem, she said.

“We have had pools of people from Southeast Nebraska that were good employees who got treated like dirt and said, 'See you. I'm not going to be treated like this.'"

Inmates see it, too. “They’ve got a bad management problem,” said Harlton Roberson, who spent 2002 to 2008 behind bars. “I’ve seen numerous times -- the administration had a problem caring about their staff, and from an inmate’s point of view, I knew they didn’t give a s--- about us.”

James Garcia, a former officer at Tecumseh, said he didn’t feel comfortable approaching his supervisors when he worked there last year.

“The people you’re supposed to be able to go to with questions and problems and to receive answers and solutions, you don’t get that vibe from there,” he said. “You can’t go to your superiors without having a darn good excuse to go and talk to them in their office.”

Locked in their own prison

The call would go out two or three times a week: We need people to pick up another shift. If no one volunteers, we’ll make it mandatory.

Garcia had already worked 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and now he -- and other third-shifters -- were being told they needed to stay another eight hours to fill out the first shift.

Prisons don’t have a choice: They need to staff their posts. So they need employees to work overtime.

Prison employees don’t always have a choice, either. “When you lose those employees, you have to work overtime,” Steadman said. “What if you don’t want to work overtime? They’ll fire you.”

The money can be good: An extra eight-hour shift can put another $180 on an officer’s paycheck.

But the hours can devour an employee's day. Like many officers, Garcia was driving from Lincoln, and the round trip took two hours. Add the 16 hours on duty, and he was finding little time to sleep, or have a life.

“It’s extremely hard to plan things when you’re getting mandatorily held over,” he said.

Each officer gets two “byes” a year, he said -- get-out-of-overtime-free cards. You save those for birthdays and holidays. If you don't play your bye, you can't say no to mandatory overtime. You face disciplinary action -- putting your job at risk -- if you refuse.

Garcia estimated 10 to 15 officers worked the overnight shift with him, when prisoners were sleeping. The first shift, the day shift, had at least twice as many.

“When their vacations don’t get approved or they have a Husker game they want to go to, 10 people call in sick,” he said. “And they hold over almost all of the third shift for mandatory overtime.”

A couple of weeks before the riot, in fact, the entire overnight shift worked consecutive 16-hour days, according to an employee.

The prison has long relied on overtime, another employee said: “I don't know if there's been 10 days in 10 years when they didn't mandatory someone.”

And the use of it at Tecumseh is building. At the end of April, it had paid nearly $1.3 million in overtime for the fiscal year that began in July, or more than $32,000 a week on average.

The total is nearly double what it spent in all of fiscal year 2012, according to budget documents.

But it's not just Tecumseh. Overall, the department has a third as many employees as the Department of Health and Human Services, but it spends nearly as much on overtime -- more than $7 million last fiscal year.

Employees tried to avoid it, Garcia said. They’d time their rounds to avoid the phones at their posts. They’d hurry toward the parking lot when they clocked out, only to find the door locked.

They’d be held there, waiting for each other to step up to take the overtime, or for administrators to make it mandatory.

“Sometimes, there would be 10 to 15 to 20 people waiting there to get out,” he said. “It’s sad at the end of your shift when your goal is to run out as fast as possible.”

It became too much for Garcia, who had worked in other prisons and the Lancaster County Jail. He was irritable, getting angry at home for problems at work. He quit after less than a year.

“I went to the railroad. I deal with one or two people a day and that’s it. That’s more than enough for me right now.”

Training ground

Most of those who apply for custody-level jobs at Tecumseh have never worked in corrections before, Steadman said.

Some are straight out of school. In Nebraska, officers are required to be at least 18, have a diploma or equivalent and be able to legally possess a gun.

Recruits receive six weeks of training in Lincoln. It’s thorough, covering more than 30 topics: They learn how to administer first aid, how to perform searches, how to protect themselves from inmate mind games.

But it’s also theoretical, Steadman said. So some officers start the job expecting death row to look like something from a movie but find murderers walking the unit without shackles or cuffs.

It doesn’t become real until it’s real, he said. "For many of the uninitiated, that's pretty much a shock."

Most inmates just want to do their time quietly and go home, he said. But some suffer mental health or substance abuse problems and act unpredictably. Others like to push limits. They might tease or taunt prison staff. They might fill their shampoo bottle with excrement and body fluids and use it as a spray gun.

Correctional officers have to know how to handle that. They’re not armed. They’re not armored. They’re locked in with more than 100 felons, sometimes exhausted from working 16-hour shifts, Steadman said.

They’re dealing with inmates who have been imprisoned longer than some of the officers have been alive.

“That’s where experience comes in,” he said.

But turnover at Tecumseh leads to a revolving door of fresh faces who lack that experience. The average length of service at the department is 8.77 years, while at Tecumseh it’s 5.86. Correctional officers there have an average of fewer than four years of experience.

“You had new people in there coming and going all the time,” said a former inmate who asked to not be identified for fear of retaliation if he’s ever sent back.

Inmates didn’t know what to expect from new officers, especially from the youngest. Some clearly didn’t know what they were getting into. Others tried too hard.

“You get some of the young ones in there, they come in there and they try to be really macho,” he said.

Garcia, the former officer, said some of his young co-workers lacked the mindset to meet the responsibility of exercising authority over men.

“They didn’t really take the job seriously. They thought it’s just a job, that this isn’t anything important.”

Classes double

The next class of corrections employees graduated last Friday, with friends and family gathered behind them, a map of the state’s prisons on the wall in front.

They’d completed five weeks at the Staff Training Academy, a former school building in northeast Lincoln. They spent time in the classroom, at the gun range and in replicated cells, searching for tobacco, shanks, razor blades and rope. They had one more week of school before their on-the-job training.

Classes at the academy run year-round -- last Friday’s graduation was its fifth in 2015 -- averaging 35 to 40 students each.

But the academy will double its output of correctional officers, caseworkers, corporals, supply workers and other prison positions when the new training year starts in July, said Ken Sturdy, training and development manager.

A new class will start every three weeks, meaning more than 600 new employees will get trained in those 12 months. The change is a direct response to the department's staffing shortage, Sturdy said.

The department is taking other steps, too, spokesman James Foster said in an email. In the past, it waited until positions were vacant to fill them. But that took months, he said, because of the hiring process and training. Now, it will try to project vacancies and hire in advance.

It's also working with the Department of Administrative Services to identify ways to keep employees, such as pay and transportation to Tecumseh, although he did not elaborate.

At the graduation ceremony last week, the trainees received handshakes, badges and refreshments. But first they got some advice.

This is more than a job, the department’s Dawn Renee Smith told them. It’s a career path.

She urged them to take pride in what they do, and to believe they can make a difference: They’ll be dealing with members of society that society prefers not to deal with.

“It’s an awesome responsibility,” she said. “Don’t forget that.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or Reach Lori Pilger at 402-473-7237 or


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A grand jury will investigate the death of an inmate at the Tecumseh state prison, according to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. 

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