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'A tremendous success': Ricketts hails prison hiring initiative

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Take a closer look at Nebraska's highest prison populations in 2019 (by % operational capacity).

Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday celebrated the success of the state's effort to fill cascading job vacancies in Nebraska's prison system with substantial increases in wages for prison staff.

Ricketts described the initiative, negotiated with employee union representatives, as "a tremendous success" for the state.

As part of the agreement, starting wages for corrections corporals and prison caseworkers were hiked from $20 an hour to $28 an hour, triggering an increase in annual salary from $41,600 to $58,240 for a 40-hour week.

The agreement doubled overtime pay.

Job applications prior to the agreement averaged 34 a week and have now reached 96 a week, Ricketts said during a news conference that shone a spotlight on the dramatic changes that have resulted in Nebraska's prison system. 

Staffing vacancies already have been reduced from 427 to 206, he said.

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Scott Frakes, director of the Department of Correctional Services, said his agency has received more than a thousand applications since December, with 267 personnel hired, including 118 from 33 states other than Nebraska.

Turnover has declined from 403 last year to 22 so far this year, he said, and the chronically understaffed prison at Tecumseh is "fully staffed" now. 

Jason Jackson, the state's chief human resources officer, saluted the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police as "a great partner" in helping negotiate the agreement.

Ricketts also pointed to the innovative apprenticeship program instituted with Peru State College that gives criminal justice majors "hands-on experience" within corrections.

"We are building leaders for corrections," Frakes said.

With the addition of newly hired correctional personnel in the wake of the increase in salary and benefits, "we are a few weeks away from ... a significant downturn in overtime," he said.

On another matter, answering a question on whether he would respond favorably to urging from the Legislature's Appropriations Committee that he apply for $120 million in federal funding that remains available to Nebraska for rental and utility assistance, Ricketts said he is "not planning to do that" because he does not see a demand.

"I don't see landlords applying," he said. 

The state would have "a hard time justifying need," the governor said. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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