TECUMSEH, Neb. — At least nine employees of the Tecumseh State Prison have quit in the wake of a deadly riot there last week, adding another dimension to staffing problems at the 960-bed facility.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, after touring the prison on Tuesday, pledged to seek solutions to personnel problems at the facility, which include high turnover and job vacancy rates, complaints about stagnant salaries, and the recurring need to order mandatory overtime to maintain a full security staff.

"We will be making progress on that," Ricketts said of the issues.

A World-Herald story on Sunday revealed that nearly half of the corrections officers at Tecumseh have less than two years' experience, and the average experience level of all security staff is about four years.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said those numbers must be improved.

"Having a stable, seasoned staff helps the overall culture of the facility," Frakes said. "It certainly helps when everyone knows how to do the job well." Tuesday's tour was the first time the governor, along with about 20 reporters, was allowed to view some of the damage.

The riot began on the afternoon of May 10 and wasn't fully under control until the next morning. Inmates took control of two housing units at the state's newest and highest-security prison. In one, charred books and magazines and ceiling tiles still littered the floor.

Black soot above doors marked where inmates burned out Plexiglas windows using baby oil as an accelerant. The oil was set ablaze by tissue paper sparked into flames using wires jammed into electrical outlets.

A two-story-high dividing wall was burned and knocked down by inmates in a reported attempt to get at inmates in another gallery of housing Unit 2.

Two inmates were found dead in that unit, apparently at the hands of fellow inmates. Prison officials have not said how they died.

Two corrections officers and four other inmates were injured in the worst prison violence in decades in Nebraska.

Officials showed where staff took refuge in a prison office and control center until being rescued by security forces. Also shown was a gym office where a female staff member blocked a door with a desk to protect herself from threatening in mates.

They also pointed out where the riot began: at the entrance to housing Unit 1, which holds Nebraska's death row. A group of 40 inmates had gathered, including one inmate who was supposed to be in his cell, according to Tecumseh Warden Brian Gage.

The group refused to disperse and a corrections guard and caseworker were assaulted. That prompted a guard in the tower in the middle of the prison yard to fire a warning shot and issue an order for all inmates involved in the disturbance to "get down."

Gage said that when not all inmates got down on the ground, as required, the guard fired and hit one inmate in the leg.

He said he is aware of only one other time when a warning shot had to be fired at inmates, and that resolved a fight. When asked if staff responded appropriately, Gage said yes.

"It's a difficult job anyway, and this was a difficult situation," he said.

The later riot did not spread into housing Unit 1. Only Units 2 and 3 were involved.

There were signs that some things were returning to normal on Tuesday:

Inmates, for the first time since the riot, were to receive three meals, two hot and one a sack lunch. They had been receiving two meals a day.

About 50 inmates returned to prison jobs, as cooks, custodians or health porters. Laundry service was restored, and items were added at prison canteens.

A 32-cell gallery that had been taped off as a crime scene was released for cleaning and repairs. The Nebraska State Patrol is investigating the deaths as well as other crimes that may have been committed. The gallery was expected to be back in use within 48 hours.

"You're doing a phenomenal job managing this very difficult situation," Ricketts said to prison staff following his one-hour visit Tuesday.

Frakes, who took over as cor-rections chief in February and who dealt with prison uprisings in his former job in Washington state, said he couldn't say when prison programs and other activities would fully return at Tecumseh.

Ricketts, facing his first crisis since taking office in January, said Tecumseh is an important facility that houses the state's "most hardened criminals."

It protects public safety, he said, just as "strong laws" also protect public safety.

The Republican governor then renewed his call for the State Legislature to reject a bill that would do away with some mandatory minimum sentences and narrow the use of the state's "three strikes" law, which provides longer prison terms for habitual criminals.

Ricketts also urged citizens to call lawmakers and ask them to vote against the repeal of the death penalty — a bill coming up for a final vote today — and to reject softer penalties for crimes like drive-by shootings and child pornography.

"These are vicious crimes," the governor said. "I think the people of Nebraska need to ask their state senator, 'What are you thinking?'"

The governor and prison officials offered no new insights Tuesday into the motives and causes of the violent prison rampage. But they did acknowledge that it cast a spotlight on longtime manpower problems at the rural prison, which is about 60 miles from both Omaha and Lincoln.

Gage said the facility had about 40 job vacancies when the incident occurred, though all posts were occupied when the riot broke out. Tecumseh has 286 custody staff, and about 480 employees in total.

The warden said that many states have similar problems in recruiting and retaining staff in rural locations, and that Nebraska having the nation's lowest unemployment rate doesn't help.

The governor said part of the reason he hired Frakes was to review issues such as prison staffing. In that effort, Frakes has already met with a human resources specialist in Ricketts' office.

Frakes said he is exploring several ideas, including organizing ride shares for corrections workers who are commuting long distances to lower their expenses. That approach helped in Washington state, he said.

Frakes said he will be reviewing several other matters, including better training and compensation for guards, who have long complained about the lack of "step" increases for longevity. That means a longtime officer is paid the same as a new corrections officer.

"One of the best recruitment strategies is retaining your staff — the more you retain, the less you need to recruit," he said. "So we're going to put as much energy as we can into staff."

On Tuesday, the critical incident review team, led by a prison security official from Washington state, began its work to review what caused the prison riot and what can be done to prevent another.

Gage predicted that the review would make the Tecumseh prison "stronger."

"I know that with the change of director and (corrections) leadership, I feel a lot better in reference to where the department is going," he said.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

"You're doing a phenomenal job managing this very difficult situation."

Gov. Pete Ricketts, to prison staff

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.