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We need a sufficient number of well-trained police, firefighters and paramedics to keep our communities safe. The same is true of those tasked with maintaining order within our state prisons.

Correctional officers play a vital role in Nebraska’s criminal justice system. These men and women help ensure that inmates behave appropriately and are prepared to safely re-enter the community upon completion of their sentences, and that they don’t endanger public safety while incarcerated.

Unfortunately, the state has failed to provide these workers with the necessary support to do their jobs.

Shortages in protective custody staff at the Department of Correctional Services have resulted in skyrocketing overtime, with officers at some of the state’s most strained institutions routinely working back-to-back, 16-hour shifts, often with little notice.

Nebraska’s Inspector General for Corrections has long described the situation as a crisis. This characterization is accurate, particularly in the context of extreme overcrowding that has plagued the prisons in recent years.

At the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, which is operating at nearly double its design capacity, things became so acute that Corrections Director Scott Frakes last month declared an emergency. He also mandated 12-hour shifts, largely to get a handle on the situation and provide his custody staff with some predictability in their schedules.

While alarming, this decision is a much-needed step in the right direction.

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The next step must be adequate pay.

In announcing the Penitentiary emergency, Director Frakes said he also plans to work with union leaders to quickly identify “long-term solutions to our hiring and retention challenges.” Gov. Pete Ricketts should make clear that this means renegotiating the state’s labor contract with Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents protective services staff at the Department of Corrections.

This might seem unnecessary, given the Department’s new $10,000 hiring bonuses. But similar strategies have been attempted, and they haven’t solved the problem.

When you consider that an employee would need to stay for three years to receive the full bonus, it results in an effective wage rate for prison staff that is still far lower than they could make on Day 1 at some county jails in the area.

A common perception among some correctional officers is that the state trains them so counties can recruit them. And through my conversations with staff, it has become clear to me that jails in Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties are prime competitors for this critical workforce.

Until we acknowledge this fact and adjust wages accordingly, our state prisons will continue to struggle with staffing shortages.

It’s simple economics -- and key to public safety in our state.

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Sen. Steve Lathrop is chair of the Judiciary Committee and represents District 12, which includes Ralston and portions of south-central Omaha, in the Nebraska Legislature.

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