Loved ones, union reps call for changes in prisons amid “dire” staffing shortages

Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 6:10 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Abby Salkeld is scared for her husband’s life.

Jason Salkeld is an inmate at Lincoln Community Corrections (LCC), where right now there’s a serious staffing shortage leading to reduced services to inmates.

“My husband calls me and I just cry,” Abby said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Michael Chipman, Vice President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents many of Nebraska’s corrections workers said the staff shortage is the worst he’s ever seen. This is all while NDCS remains in an overcrowding emergency.

“Things are very, very dire,” Chipman said.

Chipman said half of the staff at LCC and the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center (DEC) have quit and the Nebraska State Penitentiary and Tecumseh State Correctional Center are both down more than 100 staff each.

“We usually go through a cycle in the summer where we have retention issues but this is way beyond that,” Jerry Brittain, Vice President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88 said. “We’ve never been half down at a facility. Tecumseh is beyond critical at this point.”

To manage the shortage, the Nebraska Department of Corrections has put LCC and DEC on modified schedules. They’re having staff work 12-hour shifts Monday through Thursday and offering the most service those days.

“They’re going to try and run the prison Monday through Thursday and run below critical the rest of the week and that’s not a realistic solution,” Brittain said.

The long shifts also take a toll on corrections staff.

“We’ve lost over 30 staff in the last month,” Chipman said. “It’s unsustainable. People can’t live like that with what it’s doing to their mental health. It’s not fair to their families let alone them.”

The shortage also significantly impacts the inmates.

Chipman and Brittain said inmates are only out of their cells for 32 hours a week.

Kathy Terry, who is Jason Salkeld’s mother, confirms this.

“They get locked up on Thursday evenings at 5:45 p.m. and don’t get back out of their rooms until Monday morning,” Terry said.

Terry said her son told her they don’t get to take showers, interact with other inmates other than their cell-mates and visits keep being canceled.

“We have a son who is three years old and Jason started his sentence when he was five months old, I want him to know his dad,” Salkeld said.

Terry said NDCS has dropped the ball.

“They’re already in prison for what they’ve done now they’re being locked down and double punished because they can’t keep staff on hand,” Terry said.

Terry is worried it’s going to get violent. So is the Fraternal Order of Police #88.

“They keep promising it’s going to get fixed and they do things like inmate barbecues to kind of appease them but that’s only going to last for so long,” Brittain said. “They’re going to get tired of being locked down with no services, no visits and not working toward classes and programs to be parole eligible. It’s going to start affecting their ability to get back into the community.”

They said if violence does break out, there’s no staff to respond.

“These inmates have to have supervision legally,” Chipman said. “At what point does the stable become liable?”

As for a solution, Chipman and Brittain said wages need to increase. They said right now the average starting salary is about $20/hour. Brittain said many fast food restaurants are offering $17/hour post-pandemic so these wages aren’t competitive because corrections workers are being asked to risk their lives on the job.

“We have got to come after this financially. That’s the only way to get people in the door. Then we have to treat them right once they do get in the door,” Chipman said.

Brittain said the hiring bonuses, which are not up to $15,000, aren’t a long-term solution.

They are going into negotiations with NDCS in the next few weeks and hope changes will be made. But even then, said it’s not likely to change fast enough.

“There is a point where you’re going to have to look at a National Guard response,” Chipman said.

At this time, NDCS hasn’t replied to a request for a statement on the shortage. Recently, they’ve denied a request for an interview about this topic.

Senator Steve Lathrop, chair of the legislature’s judiciary committee will be holding listening sessions regarding the shortages on Wednesday in Room 1113 of the State Capitol at 4:30 p.m.

The Union is hoping some relief will come from that session.

“We’re waiting on the Governor to do what he has to do to make it right,” Brittain said.

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