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Corrections watchdog calls for immediate action on staffing crisis, saying public safety is in jeopardy

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 6:49 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Nebraska prison workers are sharing stories of having emotional breakdowns on their way into work, working 16-hour shifts and falling asleep on the job, only to wake up and find inmates holding their keys and feeling more unsafe now than they did during deadly riots.

These stories come from a report released by Doug Koebernick, the Inspector General for the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

The report details the staffing shortage Koebernick describes as an “elevated crisis.”

“Every time I think the situation can’t get worse it seems to get worse,” Koebernick told 10/11 NOW.

According to the report, since 2015, 4,100 corrections employees have left the department. As of June, there were 527 open positions, up from 397 in March. This means 136 people quit their jobs in four months.

“Over the years we’ve known there was a staffing issue and it just kept building and building and for a while not much action was taken to address those concerns,” Koebernick said.

Koebernick said three facilities are under staffing emergencies. The Nebraska State Penitentiary, the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute and Lincoln Corrections Center/Diagnostics and Evaluation Center. LCC and DEC were once two separate facilities, now the department refers to them as one.

These emergencies have led to staff working 16 to 24-hour shifts. In 2020, NDCS paid out more than $15 million in overtime payments.

“What happens is staff gets stretched thin, they work more overtime. It does this whole repetitive cycle,” Koebernick said. “That leads to more people leaving jobs, then there’s more overtime needed and the impact on the facility is inmates don’t have access to programming, visitation, education, if the have a job they don’t have access to that, they don’t get outside. That creates more stress and turmoil and that impacts the staff. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to stop.”

Koebernick’s report lists several recommendations.

One of them is to increase pay for entry-level corrections officers. Right now, they’re paid $20 an hour. Lancaster, Sarpy and Douglas counties all pay more.

Koebernick said the department also needs to address compressive wages, because right now there are upper level employees who haven’t gotten the same raises as lower level positions.

“We have lieutenants and captains that oversee sergeants who are getting paid less than the sergeants,” Koebernick said. “We need to be better on that because if you can keep those people and have their experience then they can be good supervisors and create a better work environment.”

He also said it’s not all about money.

“If 10% of the 4,100 who have left would have stayed, we wouldn’t be in a staffing crisis,” Koebernick said. “If I was running the department, I would be reaching out to those people regularly and finding out why did you leave and what can we do to get you to come back.”

Another one of Koebernick’s recommendations is to take a closer look at the hiring bonus program. His report shows 60% of the about 250 people hired under the $10,000 bonus program quit within two years. In August, 2021 the department boosted that bonus to $15,000.

“We can’t just keep upping the bonus because so far it doesn’t seem like it’s really working,” Koebernick said.

In the immediate, Koebernick said the Governor should consider bringing in the National Guard to help man certain positions to take the pressure off the staff they do have, who Koebernick said are making great sacrifices right now to help run the prisons.

“I’m hopeful having staff heard by the legislature will highlight some of the issues that need to be addressed and those will get addressed and we can stop the flow of staff, it needs to stop,” he said.

10/11 NOW requested a comment from NDCS. A spokesperson forwarded a statement from Taylor Gage, a spokesperson for Governor Pete Ricketts.

It reads:

“In this period of record low unemployment, the State of Nebraska is facing a lot of the same challenges in hiring as businesses across the state, including hiring at the Department of Corrections. The state has made significant increases to corrections officer compensation in recent years, and we recognize more needs to be done. We are preparing to sit down with FOP to negotiate on additional steps we can take to help ensure we recruit and retain the workforce we need.”

Koebernick said those staff need to be hired soon or else the state won’t be able to open the more than 300 new beds it planned to open to address the overcrowding emergency that’s also happening.

Koebernick said a 32-bed mental health unit and 284 high security unit are supposed to open at the LCC/DEC facility soon, which would create 125 new jobs.

“We’re down 500 to 600 positions so if we don’t do anything about it, we’ll be down 600 to 800 positions and it’s going to be very hard to open those new beds the director has identified as being sorely needed,” Koebernick said.

In addition, the Governor and NDCS Director Scott Frakes have announced plans to build a whole new prison which Koebernick said would require 400 staff members to run.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Koebernick said. “If we have 500 to 600 vacancies and about to add another 125 to think we can add another 400 to staff a new prison, I’m not quite sure how that would work.”

In an email, the ACLU called on the state to scrap the plans for the new prison amid this ongoing staffing crisis.

“A lack of leadership got us here and now we’re seeing the human cost of cascading failure after failure,” Danielle Conrad, executive director with the ACLU said in the email. “We are not adequately staffing the prisons we already have and Nebraskans should be alarmed that the situation has grown so dire that there is now a serious recommendation to call in the National Guard. The imperative is clear. Gov. Ricketts must drop his misguided demands for a new $230 million prison and encourage state senators to make smart justice reform their first and most pressing focus in the 2022 legislative session. It’s time for historic action to ensure adequate staffing, diversion, rehabilitation and reentry.”

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