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Editorial: Ricketts administration's efforts on prison staffing show promise

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Guards and prisoners at the Tecumseh State Prison in Tecumseh, Nebraska.

Nebraska’s prison staffing problems have been well documented.

Chronic shortages of guards and other employees. Mandatory overtime that requires some prison guards to stay four more hours after their regular 12-hour shifts, contributing to record overtime costs and employee fatigue and burnout. Rapid turnover.

Articles in the Omaha World-Herald and the nonprofit Flatwater Free Press have described the impact on employees as well as prisoners, who can be locked down for days at a time when Nebraska prisons are among the most crowded in the country.

So it’s good news that Gov. Pete Ricketts and his administration have been making progress lately in recruiting and retaining corrections staff. Not surprisingly, Nebraska’s promising strategy involves paying workers more.

Hefty pay increases for state corrections workers have already reduced staff vacancies by half and should soon cut into forced overtime for prison guards and required weekend lockdowns for many prisoners, World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes reported earlier this month.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said the raises of up to 40%, which were announced in November, have helped the state attract more than 1,000 new applicants and make 267 new hires.

Some 50 of the new hires are staffers who previously left and are now returning to the agency, and 118 are coming from out of state.

“We are very pleased with that agreement and the impact it has had on our staffing,” Ricketts said.

Under the pay package negotiated with the state union of correctional workers, starting wages for corrections corporals and prison caseworkers are rising from $20 an hour to $28 an hour. That equates to a bump from an annual salary of about $42,000 to $58,000.

Money doesn’t solve every problem, but it seems obvious that higher pay makes an admittedly tough job more attractive. And potential corrections workers certainly have other options in a state with a low unemployment rate.

The higher salaries will cost the state and its taxpayers more money, although at least part of that will be offset if overtime pay goes down. But it’s a necessary expense.

And if the pay raises ultimately help resolve Nebraska’s prison staffing problems, the result will be improved working conditions that are fairer to the corrections staffers who perform those important jobs — especially those who have remained on the job despite being forced to work grueling hours.

As Ricketts said: “The women and men who serve the state of Nebraska in the Department of Corrections really are heroes.”

The Ricketts administration deserves credit for taking a pragmatic approach in trying to fix the staffing problems.

Nebraskans, after all, are practical problem-solvers. At our best, we take a clear-eyed view of issues and don’t let politics and petty differences keep us from doing what’s right. We’re able to assess a difficult challenge, come up with possible solutions, reach compromises and take steps to implement them.

Let’s hope that the governor and state senators in the current legislative session can find practical and effective agreement on solving other corrections issues, from severe overcrowding in Nebraska prisons to the societal issues that contribute to such incarceration.

Now that would truly be heroic.

Paying the Price: An investigative series looking at Nebraska's prisons

Paying the Price: An investigative series looking at Nebraska's prisons

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The World-Herald's occasional series on Nebraska's prison crisis begins with the the state’s nation-leading incarceration spike, and how past actions by lawmakers have played a role in that growth.

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Nebraska locks up people of color at higher rates than the U.S. as a whole. The gaps between its low White incarceration rate and high rates for racial minorities are among the widest in the country.

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Anthony Washington now sees his devotion to his gang as a “false idolization” that helped steer him to prison.

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When Shakur Abdullah speaks to prison inmates who are preparing to transition back to society, he counsels them not to give up hope they can turn their lives around.

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Omaha police have worked hand in hand with affected communities to employ all-new tactics, including a beefed-up gang specialty unit, shot detection technology and enhanced rewards for tips.

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Nebraska's tough 2009 law sent offenders to a state prison cell instead of a federal one. Besides the cost to Nebraska taxpayers, the shift meant inmates were better able to keep local gang ties.

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