Corrections chief Frakes says a new special committee to probe prison problems is unnecessary

Corrections chief Frakes says a new special committee to probe prison problems is unnecessary
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — State Corrections Director Scott Frakes told lawmakers Tuesday that another special investigation of his troubled agency is unnecessary and would take away time from enacting changes and attacking problems such as high staff turnover.

“This would be another consumer of very precious resources,” Frakes said. “There’s only so many hours that go around.”

On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Executive Board took testimony on a proposal to create the third special investigative committee for the state prison system since 2014.

State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said that recent prison riots, the slayings of five inmates and lingering problems with high staff turnover and overcrowding require another probe of the agency.

A normal interim study of corrections isn’t enough, Krist said. What’s needed is a special investigative committee staffed by an attorney and a clerk with the power to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony, to determine why more improvements haven’t been seen.

“(An interim study) has no teeth. It has no direction,” Krist said.

The senator, who was involved in two previous legislative studies of corrections, said creation of a special investigative committee was even more important because term limits were removing senators who were involved in the past studies.

The new committee would follow one formed in 2014 that probed several issues, including the case of Nikko Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate who was convicted of murdering four people in Omaha shortly after being released from prison.

A subsequent committee, with more of an oversight role, was formed in 2015 to track steps to improve rehabilitation programs in prison and alleviate overcrowding that has reached 160 percent of capacity.

The state employees union, the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, and ACLU of Nebraska, which has pledged to file a civil rights lawsuit against the state for its overcrowded prisons, testified in favor of the new committee.

“While much has been done … conditions in our prisons are still extremely problematic and constitutional violations are rampant,” said ACLU lawyer Spike Eickholt.

Frakes testified against the proposal, while Doug Koebernick, a staffer involved in the previous prison studies, testified in a neutral capacity.

Koebernick, who now holds the recently created position of inspector general for corrections, said that past prison investigative committees provided valuable insight and recommendations.

But Frakes, as well as Heartwell Sen. John Kuehn, said there are plenty of other means for the Legislature to obtain information and ensure that corrections is taking appropriate steps to reduce staff turnover and overcrowding.

Koebernick’s new position is one such option, they said. The state also has a Justice Reinvention Oversight Committee that meets to track progress in adopting reforms passed in a 2015 law, Legislative Bill 605. That bill reduced sentences to help alleviate prison overcrowding and increased supervision and preparation of inmates for their release from prison in hopes of preventing repeat crimes.

And Crete Sen. Laura Ebke has proposed an interim study of prison issues later this year.

“There is more oversight over my agency than my peers across the country,” Frakes said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has been active on prison issues for years, took exception to Frakes’ opposition. He said more slayings have occurred in the prison system since Frakes was hired 27 months ago than from 1970, when Chambers was first elected to the Legislature, until Frakes’ hiring in January 2015.

Chambers charged that Frakes was being evasive with committee members Tuesday when he declined to answer questions about whether he “reneged” on a promise to return the Tecumseh State Prison to regular eight-hour shifts.

Frakes has retained 12-hour shifts at the prison, maintaining that a staffing “emergency” still exists two years after a riot left two inmates dead and more than $2 million in damage.

A second riot left two dead in March, and last month an inmate was slain in his cell. Prosecutors have charged his cellmate, who was serving a life sentence for murder, with first-degree murder. No charges have been filed in the four other deaths.

The corrections director said he could not comment about the public employees union matter because union has pledged to file a formal labor complaint with the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations.

Said Chambers, “I think you’ve shown exactly why the (special) committee needs to be formed.”

The Executive Board is scheduled to meet again today to decide that question. If recommended by the board, the full Legislature would debate the issue Thursday, the next-to-last day of the 2017 legislative session.

At least two members of the board, Syracuse Sen. Dan Watermeier and Venango Sen. Dan Hughes, said they had not yet made up their minds.

Krist said that an interim study by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee wouldn’t have the priority or focus of a special legislative committee.

The two previous special legislative committees on corrections proposed several changes and reforms that Frakes said Tuesday have either been “completed” or are “on task” to be done.

Turnover of prison security staff is now at 28 percent, which, while a reduction from a high of 32 percent last year, is still too high, the director said.

While prisons are still at nearly 160 percent of capacity, the Corrections Department should not be blamed for that, according to Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer, the speaker of the Legislature. Scheer said an unexpected increase in felony convictions caused an increase in prison discharges to be offset by newly arrived inmates.

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