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NDCS staff current & past outline staffing issues firsthand

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 9:50 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - On Wednesday night, Nebraska Department of Correctional Services employees, both current and past, outlined what it’s like working on the front lines amid a staffing shortage.

Many described similar scenarios of sparse staffing across the system and expressed concern not only for the future but for their own team’s safety.

The listening session in front of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee was emotional at times. Many expressed a passion for the work and their work families, but worry as things continue to worsen that there’s no end to the struggle in sight.

“Given the staffing where we’re at right now it’s dangerous,” said Jeff Seeley, a lieutenant at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. “It’s scary and I routinely put people into positions where they end up being assaulted and put into positions where they’re encountering scary situations.”

Nebraska’s two biggest prisons, The State Penitentiary and Tecumseh, have officially been on staffing emergencies since 2019.

Now that’s up to four, including Lincoln’s Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, building that was designed to hold 160 inmates. Right now, there are about 420.

The staff there expressed growing concerns in that facility specifically. People like James Hebbard, who, while testifying, was asked how many people are normally working during his shift.

“At nighttime, I work 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. On a good day at D&E, probably five if we’re lucky,” Hebbard said.

Hebbard had said previously in his testimony that ideally, that building should have anywhere from 15 to 25 people to be considered fully staffed.

Money was also a common theme as a problem. Many who testified as more tenured workers do not qualify for any sign-on or retention bonuses, which in the last few years has ranged anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000.

Support staff, which includes roles like caseworkers or those who lead programming, are often being pulled into other positions to assist during the shortage but said they aren’t being paid the rate of those roles.

“I think what’s happening with these retention bonuses and hiring bonuses it’s created a divide, created an us versus them type mentality,” said Brian Koch, who works across multiple NDCS facilities as a workforce development manager.

Many testifiers outlined workdays that span upwards of 17 hours. This means many times inmates are also not let out during those periods for things like showers, ice, hot water, or even meals.

“It’s serious. It got to the point where I was working in a specific housing unit and we were locking down that often,” said Brooke Myers who works at Tecumseh. “Inmates were coming up and tell me, Myers, if we keep locking down somethings going to happen. It’s already brewing, everyone’s getting frustrated, something’s going to happen.”

Omaha Senator Terrell McKinney asked all the testifiers if they thought building a new prison was a good idea. Right now, there is a proposal on the table for a $230 million one in Nebraska. Testifiers were split pretty evenly between yes and no. Many of those who said yes also said only after the staffing problem was fixed.

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