LINCOLN — A record-high number of job vacancies and continued high turnover caused “staffing emergencies” to be declared Monday at two more prisons.
The declaration at the 518-inmate Lincoln Correctional Center and the 439-inmate Diagnostic and Evaluation Center means that staffing will shift immediately to two 12-hour shifts a day from three eight-hour shifts a day. That will allow required security posts to be filled with fewer employees.
Two other state prisons, the 1,000-inmate Tecumseh State Prison and the 1,250-inmate State Penitentiary in Lincoln, have been operating under staffing emergencies for more than a year in what has been described as a “short-term” solution to the lack of personnel.
Those staffing emergencies were expected to expire before the end of 2020, but Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Monday that a “slowdown” in hiring has forced the continuation, and expansion, of the emergencies.
“We are feeling the effects that many other industries and businesses are experiencing currently, nationally and across Nebraska,” Frakes said. “This is a very tight job market, especially in Lincoln.”
Staffing emergencies are now in effect in the state’s two largest prisons, the State Penitentiary and the combined Lincoln Correctional Center and DEC. More than half of the state prison population, which has averaged 5,300 in recent weeks, is affected by the staffing emergencies.
Nebraska’s prison system is the second-most overcrowded system in the country, handling about 1,700 more inmates than its design capacity. Staffing problems have plagued the department, especially at Tecumseh, a rural prison, but now also in Lincoln.
Vans transport more than 70 corrections officers a day from Omaha to fill vacancies in Tecumseh and in Lincoln.
The head of the union that represents corrections officers and a new report from the Nebraska Legislature’s inspector general for corrections both expressed alarm at the lack of staff as Nebraska considers whether to build a new 1,500-bed prison.
Whether corrections officials can find staff for a new prison, given the vacancies at current prisons, has been a key question.
Earlier this year, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88 asked for talks with Gov. Pete Ricketts over concerns that pay for corrections officers, despite recent raises, still lags about $2.50 an hour behind similar positions at county jails in the Omaha and Lincoln areas.
Mike Chipman, the union’s president, said he hopes that Ricketts’ administration will now respond to that call.
“This issue needs to be addressed,” he said. “The Band-Aid approach is not working.”
According to a report issued Monday by Inspector General Doug Koebernick, staff vacancies in the Corrections Department hit record levels in April, with 402 vacancies reported by the agency and 391 listed by the state personnel department.
The turnover rate of “protective service” staff (officers, corporals and others who guard inmates) was 33% in April, down from a high of 37% in March, but still more than twice what Frakes has said is ideal. Turnover and vacancies were also high among prison nurses and behavioral health workers, the inspector general’s report said.
Koebernick recommended that the Corrections Department devise a plan for fully staffing the recently merged Lincoln Correctional Center/DEC facility, which is undergoing an expansion.
The DEC is an intake facility for men entering the prison system; the Lincoln correctional facility is a maximum-security prison for men that includes housing for residential mental health.
The inspector general’s report also recommended that the agency determine if a $10,000 hiring bonus offered recently is working and what can be done to address “wage compression.” That happens when wage increases for supervisors don’t keep pace with those granted to front-line staff.