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Tecumseh State Correctional Institution

The Tecumseh State Correctional Institution

Right away, the number jumps off the page at you – yes, a $10,000 hiring bonus.

Nebraska needs staff in its prisons system, and last week’s news proves that state officials are willing to put their money where their mouths are. After decades of disregarding the Department of Correctional Services, leaders have pulled another arrow from the quiver in their latest shot at solving the staffing crisis that that continues to plague this state.

The Journal Star editorial board applauds the thought behind this effort. But this is merely a short-term fix to a long-term problem of chronic understaffing and its trickle-down effect.

In a way, this is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Nebraska has too many inmates and too few workers – to the point where adding a wing to ease prisoner overcrowding at the Nebraska State Penitentiary spurred concerns the state couldn’t staff it.

With this acute worker shortage comes an increase in lockdowns and a decrease in the programming essential to preparing inmates for life outside prison. Therefore, the true cost of this chronic deficit won’t be evident until several years down the road.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes, who holds perhaps the most thankless and challenging position in Nebraska, correctly noted he can’t address wages. That can only be done through the collective bargaining process – so the state must make this happen.

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Boosting bonuses to this level represents a good-faith effort to reduce the critical shortage of prison staffers. Spacing out bonus payments over three years, too, is clearly designed to retain workers for these demanding jobs.

Problem is, other law enforcement agencies have found a pool of qualified and trained candidates in state prisons workers. State senators and union leaders noted several county jails offer better pay and working conditions without the mandatory overtime (which Corrections used to the tune of $15 million last year, a record) that holds the state system together with Band-Aids and baling wire.

In our free-market system, wages must be competitive to keep quality talent in house. Despite being higher than in surrounding states’ prison systems, Nebraska’s salaries haven’t kept pace with its smaller jurisdictions. Bonuses will help, but they’re finite – and equate to $1.67 an hour for a 40-hour workweek, or less with overtime, over three years – as compared to increasing base pay to create long-term change.

Whether as a result of burnout or better opportunities elsewhere for employees, Corrections’ high rate of turnover – which had risen to north of 30% before falling in 2018, according to the annual inspector general’s report – means workers are taking valuable experience with them when they leave. No matter how many staffers are onboarded, it’s hard for the state to reach even a replacement level.

Again, state officials are attempting to address the problem. The proper fix must look longer term than the bonus plan announced – by not only getting Corrections workers in the door but keeping them.

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