Ongoing staff shortages at Nebraska's state penitentiary in Lincoln prompted a lockdown on Wednesday and the addition of incentives to try to increase the staff that directly oversee inmates and retain those already working.
Those incentives include hiring bonuses for corporals at the three largest men's prisons of $10,000, paid out over three years, and the same for staff who help recruit new corporals to the Nebraska State Penitentiary. In addition, all staff at the penitentiary who are still working on Dec. 31 will get a $500 retention bonus.
The cost of hiring and retention bonuses will come from the department's current budget, said spokeswoman Laura Strimple. New employees previously received $3,000 bonuses.
The combination of frequent changes to operations and running at or below minimum staffing has increased inmate tension and staff fatigue, and affected staff training and security practices, Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said in a letter to staff, outlining the declaration of a staffing emergency.
Turnover at the penitentiary has been "excessively high" over the past six months, he said, although he didn't provide numbers. In addition, the prison is at 190% of design capacity, with 1,363 inmates as of Thursday.
Frakes said the prison is going to two 12-hour shifts a day, with four-day work weeks for staff members. It will allow inmates to move around for eight hours during the 12-hour day shift and no movement on the night shift, he said.
That should help reduce the need for overtime, especially mandatory overtime, Frakes said. That should help workers control their personal schedules and restore balance to their work and family lives, which has been an ongoing problem and one of the reasons for high turnover.
The change is temporary, he said.
"We will be working hard to fill vacant positions and resume the current three-shift operational schedule," he said.
The Legislature's Judiciary Chairman Steve Lathrop said it is an encouraging sign the department recognizes it has an emergency staffing situation.
"That's better than people trying to tell us that everything's fine and manageable," Lathrop said. "We're past that. So now, I think, the solutions can begin."
Frakes acknowledged the department has tried many ways to fill vacancies, balance staffing and avoid taking what he called "this drastic step." But he has found no other viable option.
He has asked the prison employees' union to help find long-term solutions to hiring and retention problems, and they will move as quickly as possible to implement those solutions, he said.
Union attorney Gary Young said it's important that they are taking steps to try to ensure the safety of corrections officers and staff.
"I think this is part of their attempt to do that and we're grateful for that," he said. "Obviously there needs to be some long-term staffing solutions, and we're willing to do whatever it takes to get those in place."
Frakes said the department is hiring 40 corrections officers in Omaha to help with the penitentiary, which they have done at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution for the past 18 months.
The prison will remain on modified operations until Tuesday. That could include confinement in cells of a portion of the inmate population, cancellation of program and work activities, and direct escort of certain inmates.
Frakes asked for his staff's support and understanding in using the 12-hour shifts, to allow time to attract, hire and train new employees, he said.
ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad expressed concern that last week the Nebraska Department of Corrections called in nearly three dozen members of the Nebraska National Guard to help with searches for contraband at the prison, the second such search within a month. And this week, the department declared a staffing emergency.
"Nebraska’s overcrowded and under-resourced prison system remains in crisis," she said. "This ongoing crisis threatens our shared public safety goals and impacts all Nebraskans."
The ACLU called on Nebraska’s leaders to stop playing politics and to enact smart justice reforms that have worked in other states, she said.
Lathrop said it's clear the prison staff is underpaid and the only solution is to make their pay competitive to enable the department to reach full staffing.
Corrections officers make a starting wage of between $16.75 and $17 an hour, according to the state's July 1 pay plan.
It's not about offering 50 cents more an hour, Lathrop said. Compensation has to be sufficient. The state continues to lose workers to county jails that pay more and don't require mandatory overtime.
He's hoping for at least the beginning of a process in which the state can enter into a supplemental contract and pay workers and recruits more, he said. The senators can't legislate pay raises; it's up to the executive branch.
Lathrop has been in the penitentiary three times this year, and he could feel the tension there, he said.
"We need to fix this. This is a festering problem, and it requires some attention," he said.
Frakes will appear before the Judiciary Committee Friday afternoon to answer questions before it conducts an interim study hearing on staffing and overcrowding at the penitentiary.