Outgoing NDCS director said opening of new beds at RTC will ease overcrowding, but not solve emergency

10/11 NOW at 6
Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 6:35 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - The family of a Lincoln man, arrested earlier this year for terroristic threats, is hoping to bring attention to what conditions are like at the Reception and Treatment Center, which is currently the most crowded facility at NDCS.

“He did break the law,” Melissa Whittmyer, Austin Herbert’s sister said. “But I just think the care they receive in there can be better.”

Whittmyer said Herbert told her he’s been sleeping on a cot and moved around RTC several times since arriving and they believe the overcrowding is contributing to his mental health and behavior.

RTC currently houses more than 1,000 inmates when the operation capacity is 585. NDCS said it’s at 167% of operational capacity and 209% of design capacity.

“It just breaks my heart, that there’s nothing we can do,” Dixie Herbert, Austin’s mom said.

10/11 NOW reached out to NDCS to ask about Austin. A spokesperson confirmed Austin has been moved during his stay at RTC, but they said it’s because of disciplinary incidents. The spokesperson also said Austin hasn’t been sleeping in a hallway, which is what his family initially said.

However, in an interview with NDCS director Scott Frakes, he said inmates at the facility have been sleeping on cots in the dayroom.

Frakes also said soon, that the sleeping arrangement will change when RTC opens a new 384-bed unit.

“It will ensure everyone has a bed in a cell,” Frakes said. “That’s huge in and of itself. We’ll no longer need to use the plastic floor beds and have people sleeping in the day room at night.”

Frakes said this will have a big impact on the quality of life at RTC, but it won’t bring the state out of the overcrowding emergency declared in 2020.

“With the new beds that will bring us below 140% design capacity which is below that magic number that puts you in an emergency,” Frakes said. “But until we get back to 125% capacity we remain in emergency.”

As of Wednesday, NDCS is housing 5,497 inmates and sits at 150% design capacity and 120% operational capacity. Frakes said there aren’t any additional plans to open new beds.

“Absent some drastic change in incarceration activity from the community.. or changes in the law we’re going to remain in that emergency for some time,” he said.

A bill aimed at making those drastic changes failed to pass in the legislature last session. Frakes hopes the future will bring compromise on the topic.

Those changes, however, will have to come without Frakes at the helm of the department. His last day is October 7, with Frakes telling 10/11 NOW, there’s never a good time to leave but now felt right.

“It’s nice to leave on a high note,” he said.

Frakes said opening the 384 new beds is a highlight of his last few years, but so is addressing a staffing crisis.

“When I first got here and staff were pretty mad,” Frakes said. “They were frustrated with mandatory overtime, low wages, and some other issues. But recently I went to all of the facilities and spent time and had open question and answer sessions and everyone one of them is going well, that felt pretty good.”

He said over the last year, 675 new employees have been hired and the turnover rate has dropped from 30% to 18%.

“I’m really happy with where things are at today,” Frakes said. “I think 2023 is going to be an amazing year for the agency.”

Frakes hopes in the future, the state will pass legislation funding a replacement prison for the Nebraska State Penitentiary. He said this isn’t an answer to overcrowding, but a facility problem.

“It is needed, it is desperately needed,” Frakes said. “If we go another year I’m not sure how we can keep that facility operating.”

He’s also hoping a new governor, new director, and new legislative session will bring more progress on corrections reforms which will reduce the population.

As for his future, Frakes said he plans to move back to Washington to spend time with family.

“I have to go out on the beach and I have to throw rocks in the ocean,” Frakes said. “They gave me a big box of rocks for my retirement so it’ll take a little longer. So once I run out of rocks or fill up the ocean, I’ll figure out what’s next.”

He said that will likely include consulting or non-profit work.

“Something to feed the soul,” he said.