TECUMSEH — Sen. Bob Krist, Democratic candidate for governor, called for the immediate firing of Nebraska prisons Director Scott Frakes during a news conference Thursday at the entrance to the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.
"We have been more than patient waiting for Gov. (Pete) Ricketts and for the director, and they have shown no leadership in the way the state handles Corrections," Krist said.
They have presided over a prison system that continues to have problems, he said, including assaults within the prisons that put workers, and ultimately the public, at risk.
Krist said he had received the endorsement of the public employees union, and quoted John Antonich, executive director of NAPE/AFSCME Local 61, saying Krist had the experience to understand the issues public employees face every day in the prisons and all other represented state agencies.
"This is not election politics," Krist said. "These are critical issues for our state."
During his time in the Legislature, Krist has served on several committees, work groups and juvenile justice programs exploring prison reform and looking into troubles in the prison system. He was part of the prisons special investigative committee for seven years.
He said he's seen little improvement in the prison system with Frakes in charge.
"I think the kinds of things that he has brought to us have caused more problems than they have solutions," Krist said.
Krist said he would replace Frakes with someone like former Corrections Director Bob Houston, who he said was not a top-down, my-way-or-the-highway type leader, but rather would listen to rank-and-file workers.
The Ricketts campaign issued a statement Thursday, saying Krist's campaign is "sputtering so he continues his desperate attacks."
The statement said the Department of Correctional Services had made "tremendous strides" under Ricketts' leadership. It said Ricketts had called for more than $87 million in additional operating funds and more than $111 million in new construction for the prisons.
The department has expanded inmate programs and allocated additional money for employee retention, including pay increases and retention bonuses, the Ricketts campaign said.
Krist has been critical of Ricketts' disbanding of a large group of stakeholders within the legislative, judicial and administrative branches of government that worked with a national state government group to get a handle on prison crowding and all the problems that come with it.
A spokesman for Ricketts said the effort was jointly concluded when the group wrapped up its work.
Krist said he has formed a roundtable discussion group of people who have been in the corrections profession for years.
The latest prison population statistics posted on the Department of Corrections website, for fiscal year 2016-17, showed an average daily population of 5,229 men and women in Nebraska's state prisons, with an additional 112 state prisoners housed in county jails. That puts the prisons at 160 percent of design capacity overall, with individual prisons ranging from 107 percent to 298 percent of capacity.
State law says the governor must declare an emergency by July 1, 2020, if the prison population exceeds 140 percent of capacity. Krist said he would declare an emergency immediately as governor.
In January, Krist introduced a bill (LB675) that would have mandated the state declare an overcrowding emergency if the prison population didn't decrease to 140 percent in the next six months. He suggested solutions such as paroling inmates who are not a threat to public safety, or compassionate release for inmates with terminal illness, dementia or debilitating conditions.
The bill did not make it out of committee, but it came at a time when some senators, especially some on the Judiciary Committee who feel the responsibility of oversight of the prisons, were frustrated at the slow progress of decreasing the number of inmates. Krist said Frakes has not been forthcoming with answers to many questions from the committee.
Frakes opposed LB675, saying at the time that releasing people on parole because of capacity would not serve public safety. Sixty percent of parole-eligible inmates are serving sentences for violent crimes. And nearly half have served previous sentences.
Ricketts appointed Frakes, of Olympia, Washington, in 2015. He had more than 32 years of experience with the Washington Department of Corrections, where he worked at six different prisons, starting as a correctional officer and working through the uniformed ranks before moving into administrative and management roles.
Ricketts said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that his administration is doing all the right things to turn the prison problems around. Frakes needs more time to change the culture in the prisons, he said.
"We've got the right leader in Scott Frakes," he said.
Krist had planned to hold his news conference directly in front of the Tecumseh prison, but when he arrived someone had parked a state-owned Chevy Suburban on the grass in front of the Tecumseh prison sign. The acting warden, April Bulling-June, said she could not allow media on the grounds for a news conference without prior notification.
Krist cited state law that allows any state senator to visit any correctional facility at any time. But he moved the news conference to the roadway entrance to the prison.