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Editorial, 11/18: Raises for prison workers is a step in the right direction
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Editorial, 11/18: Raises for prison workers is a step in the right direction

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Frakes testifies at hearing

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes testifies Thursday in favor of building a $230 million prison.

Sometimes throwing money at a problem is exactly the right thing to do. And, ideally, throwing that money saves us more down the line.

We won't know for sure until we see if it helps Nebraska's overcrowded prison system, but we believe hefty raises announced last week by Gov. Pete Ricketts for state corrections officers and other state security workers has the potential to pay dividends for society now and save money in the long run.

The staffing shortages at state prisons and institutions that house the mentally ill and developmentally disabled are well-documented. A dramatic pay bump is the most obvious method to slow turnover and recruit new staffers.

Assuming the union approves the agreement, starting wages for corrections corporals and prison caseworkers will rise from $20 an hour to $28 an hour. Sergeants will get a bump from $24 an hour to $32 an hour.

A corrections department is far more than cells and walls. It’s about providing a safe environment for incarcerated people to pay their debt to society and to receive education, counseling and training to help them be productive members of society upon their release. Trained and engaged staffers are essential to that.

That’s why having enough of them and keeping them is essential to solving issues that have contributed to an overcrowding situation that is a legislatively designated emergency.

With a 30% annual turnover rate for prison workers, programming that is essential to rehabilitation – and sometimes is court-ordered – has to be shelved. Smaller raises haven’t provided a tipping point yet. And long shifts and overtime take a toll on morale, accelerating turnover.

Staff shortages have plagued Nebraska prisons for years but have deepened in recent months, forcing prisons in Lincoln and Tecumseh to declare "staffing emergencies" that allow staff to work 12-hour shifts because of smaller workforces.

The situation has escalated further at the combined Lincoln Correctional Center and Diagnostic and Evaluation Center and Tecumseh prison. In the last couple of months, Corrections has consolidated activities there to four 12-hour days a week — Monday through Thursday. Friday through Sunday, inmates are rarely out of their cells with no programming or visitation.

We believe that our prison system has an obligation to prepare people for life after incarceration. That means providing the programs needed to make them contributors to society are essential to mission of the corrections department. And staffers are essential to providing the structure and safety that is needed to rehabilitate people.

Better pay, more staffing and more robust programming – combined with sentencing reform and other common-sense measures – may not eliminate the need for a costly new prison, but it could delay it. The real benefit, though, will people emerging from prison ready to live productive, fulfilling lives and contribute to our community.

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