Nebraska has tried to help its Department of Correctional Services recruit and retain prisons staff in recent years by boosting pay well above neighboring states and adding retention bonuses.
Those are good steps to boost a beleaguered system. In practice, however, they’ve failed to address many structural concerns – namely, safety and quality-of-life problems.
As both prison population and turnover increase, the remaining staff grapples with increasingly difficult circumstances they’ve warned can boil over at a moment’s notice – which could rip off the Band-Aid that’s held things together for some time.
Even as incentives designed to keep employees have rolled out, more workers than ever are leaving. Inspector General Doug Koebernick’s 2018 report documented a 30.8 percent turnover rate in 2017.
Just consider the conditions Corrections staff face on a daily basis.
Overtime spending has nearly tripled in five years, reaching $13.3 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year, with the inspector general noting that it’s “difficult to differentiate” voluntary and mandatory overtime. In February, Corrections Director Scott Frakes went as far as testifying against a bill that would cap overtime shifts at 12 hours and prevent employees from working more than seven consecutive days, saying it’d cause chaos.
The burnout factor is very real. But it’s far from the only problem.
The stabbing last week of a Corrections officer at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution raises concerns about safety beyond overworked staff. The isolated facility has long struggled with staffing, to where the state now buses employees in from Omaha. The Journal Star’s police blotter has noted an uptick in charges of assault by a confined person at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
And that’s before mentioning prison overcrowding increasing to 163 percent of design capacity, which does no favors to workers’ or inmates’ wellbeing.
"The situation is no better now than it was (at the time of the 2015 Mother's Day riot), and it's likely worse," said Gary Young, attorney for the union representing prison staff. "Corrections officers who work there will tell you that it's worse. More dangerous."
That riot at Tecumseh left two inmates dead and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. And a 12-page report on it that came to light during an inmate’s trial last November, more than 3 years after it was written, detailed how long-simmering tensions in a prison with too few staff – 45 percent of whom had worked less than two years in Corrections – rapidly sparked a deadly conflagration.
Similar conditions persist to this day. Despite well-intentioned efforts, too little progress has been made on that front. Improvements to the state’s prisons will be incomplete without increasing the health and safety – not to mention number – of workers.