Maximum-security units unattended for hours at a time. Staff suffering “emotional breakdowns,” working around the clock or back-to-back 16-hour days for weeks on end. A staff member falling asleep on the job and waking up to inmates holding his keys.
A report released Tuesday by the Office of the Inspector General lays out in numbers and anecdotes the staffing situation in Nebraska’s Department of Correctional Services: it has been bad for years, and it has gotten more dire.
The report sets the stage for listening sessions scheduled for Wednesday evening at the State Capitol in Lincoln, where the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear from corrections staff.
“Staffing has overtaken overcrowding and any other issue as it relates to the Department of Corrections,” State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who chairs the committee, said Tuesday. “It affects the safety of not just the inmates, but the security staff themselves. We’re in a spiral, it seems to me.”
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Lathrop said that when he tours facilities, he hears from inmates that they want more staff because — among other concerns —inmates don’t get the programming, for example, that they should be getting.
In addition to the rehabilitative goals of such programming, inmates must complete clinical programming in order to be eligible for parole, Lathrop explained via text message.
The Wednesday forums were organized after Corrections Director Scott Frakes sent memos to staff and inmates announcing that the 518-inmate Lincoln Correctional Center and connected 420-inmate Diagnostic and Evaluation Center would start a new staffing schedule this week.
Under the schedule, visits, programming, volunteer activities, routine medical clinics, library access and recreation for inmates are limited to Monday through Thursday, with limited movement on weekends.
“These are unprecedented times,” Frakes wrote in the memo to staff. “Turnover has reached historic levels, and the applicant pool is less than 50% of what it was at the beginning of the year.”
Since the Legislature created the Office of the Inspector General in 2015, the 144-page report reads, every annual report has used the word “crisis” to describe the corrections staffing shortage.
“With great frustration, six years in, we can only conclude that this crisis has grown alarmingly worse,” the report reads. “A system which was already struggling to recruit and retain staff is now grappling with a mass exodus.”
The department hit a then-record high for staff vacancies in March 2021, with about 391 unfilled positions, according to the report. Just three months later, it had shattered that record with 527 vacancies out of about 2,300 total jobs. In contrast, the report shows 252 vacancies recorded in 2016.
The uptick in vacancies recorded in June was “primarily fueled” by losses of security staff at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center and Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln and at the prison in Tecumseh, according to the report. Security staff are putting in much more overtime than previous years, according to the report. At the same time, the department is seeing higher turnover and a lull in recruitment compared to previous years.
The three largest prison complexes in the state are under staffing emergencies. Two, the 1,027-inmate Tecumseh prison and 1,314-inmate penitentiary in Lincoln, are approaching two years under emergencies. Staffing emergencies for the Lincoln Correctional Center and connected Diagnostic and Evaluation Center were announced this summer. There’s no sign those will end anytime soon.
The office projected that, by the end of this year, the department will have lost 4,165 employees since the start of 2015.
The staffing challenges also apply to health services in the system, where vacancies doubled from June 2019 to June 2020, according to the report, and stayed that high through June 2021. Corrections relied on contract nurses to fill positions that would normally belong to state workers.
Mike Chipman, president of the union that represents corrections officers and other security staff, said the staffing shortages in state prisons are at the most dangerous level ever.
“If you had a major crisis happen on any of these (short) shifts, we don’t have the staff to handle it. So what’s the plan?” Chipman said.
Earlier this year, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88 called on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration to raise salaries so state prison jobs could keep pace with higher pay at county jails in the Omaha and Lincoln areas, but their warnings went unheeded.
Chipman said he now wonders if the National Guard may have to be called in to help, especially at the Lincoln Correctional Center/Diagnostic and Evaluation Center where more than 50% of posts are vacant.
Among the Inspector General’s recommendations is that the department and the governor should seriously consider calling upon the National Guard or other outside entities to help “relieve some of the pressure.”
However, Ricketts’ press secretary, Taylor Gage, on Tuesday said the governor “does not have plans to utilize the National Guard.”
“At what point do they need to be called in? That’s my question,” Chipman said.
Chipman said he was worried that if nothing is done soon, the lack of staffing will only accelerate as fewer officers have to work more and more overtime, and they get frustrated and quit. He added bonuses don’t work because new workers know that they’re only temporary and that they can be easily withdrawn if a new hire makes a serious mistake. The answer, Chipman said, is higher and more competitive salaries.
In October 2019, the department introduced $10,000 hiring bonuses for corporals and staff who help recruit them at the state’s three largest men’s prisons. It’s unclear whether those programs actually affected hiring and retention, according to the Inspector General’s report. Nearly 60% of the people who were hired as part of the $10,000 bonus program left within two years — dozens didn’t even stay for four months, so they never even got their first bonus payment.
Still, Ricketts and Frakes announced new plans that included upping the bonus to $15,000 for new corporals at the combined Lincoln facility, State Penitentiary in Lincoln, and Tecumseh prison. The plans also include $10,000 bonuses for staff who refer those hires, a $500 retention bonus for staff covered by the Fraternal Order of Police, a $7,500 bonus for staff who transfer to Tecumseh for a year, and more.
The report identifies notable absences, though: There’s no hiring bonus for the caseworkers who make up about 18% of the department’s vacancies, nor is there a retention bonus for staff who aren’t covered by the Fraternal Order of Police.
And, the Inspector General isn’t aware of plans for the state to assess the “efficacy, longevity and expansion” of the bonuses.
“Wage compression” also is an ongoing issue, according to the report: As the state offers more money to unionized, non-salaried staff, the gap narrows between their salaries and those of supervisors, who aren’t compensated in the same way and may work more than 40 hours a week. And adjustments to salaries for security haven’t immunized the department against competition from county jails, according to the report.
Among its conclusions, the report says the state and the department have so far failed to take necessary steps to effectively address the staffing crisis.
“Several years of insufficient steps left the system in a perilous position with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is unclear how quickly NDCS will be able to recover,” it reads.
In an emailed statement Gage, Ricketts’ spokesperson, suggested negotiations with the security officers’ union are imminent.
“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,” Gage said. “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.”
World-Herald Staff Writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.