LINCOLN — It was like two opposite universes Friday at the State Capitol when it came to the status of the state’s troubled prison system.
In the morning, prison security staff provided stern and tearful pleas that more must be done to enhance salaries to address high staff turnover, low morale and safety concerns for corrections staff.
“It’s going to take someone being killed before the public understands,” said Sgt. Brad Kreifels, who works at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
In the afternoon, Corrections Director Scott Frakes outlined several signs of progress in his agency, including expansion of rehabilitation programs, a new 100-bed prison dormitory and a new evaluation tool to guide inmates to needed programs.
“Despite some very serious events, we have been able to move forward,” Frakes said.
A state senator who chaired the two sessions said the truth is probably somewhere in between.
“Hopefully, we’ll turn the corner (at corrections) one of these days. It’s not happening as quickly as we’d hope,” said State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and a special legislative oversight committee on corrections.
Those two committees held public hearings Friday to look into personnel problems in state prisons, if enough work release programs are being offered, and to get an update about the state’s chronic prison overcrowding.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, there have been two deadly uprisings at the Tecumseh State Prison (a total of five inmates were slain during that period), and the prison system has struggled with high staff turnover, increased use of mandatory overtime and an increase in assaults on prison staff.
This summer, the ACLU of Nebraska filed a federal lawsuit alleging that inmates are getting less than adequate health care in the nation’s second-most overcrowded prison system.
“Every day it gets worse,” said Carla Jorgens, a corporal at the State Penitentiary. “I’m tired of seeing fellow employees taken out of the institution on a gurney.”
As other corrections have done, she called for “step raises” for workers based on longevity to ward off an exodus of experienced staff to safer and better paying jobs. Currently, a corrections officer who has worked 10 years gets the same wage as someone who just started.
Frakes said he understands the concerns and is doing what he can.
Earlier this month, he and his boss, Gov. Pete Ricketts, announced a plan to provide step raises for longevity and merit pay to employees at the Tecumseh State Prison, a rural prison that has the most severe problems with recruiting and retaining staff.
On Friday, Frakes said the “bold and innovative” policy may be expanded to other prisons.
“I figured out how to pay for it (there),” he said, “and we’ll see what the results are.”
Frakes said that many prison security workers seem to forget that, coupled with a raise last year, there’s been a 7-percent wage hike for corrections officers. But, he added, the agency has 150 vacancies to fill in security staff, leaving a shortage of workers to fill posts when someone is sick or on vacation.
The special oversight committee is the third impaneled by the Legislature in recent years to probe problems at corrections, and the tone from senators on the latest panel was more positive.
Gordon Sen. Tom Brewer said that prison staff he has talked with say progress has been made, though there’s still work to do.
There was one clear sign of progress reported on Friday — 365 more low-level felons and 939 inmates on post-release supervision are under probation supervision now. Those were two reforms undertaken in recent years to reduce prison overcrowding and costs, by avoiding more expensive incarceration behind bars.