LINCOLN — While review teams investigate what may have triggered a deadly riot last weekend at the state’s highest-security prison, a couple of things are already clear.
Managing a violent and unpredictable population becomes more difficult when there’s little for inmates to do and when the corrections officers who oversee them are inexperienced and overworked.
Having seasoned staff and keeping turnover rates low are keys to avoiding rampages such as the one last weekend, according to a national authority on prison riots.
“People run prisons. They just don’t run by themselves,” said George Camp, the co-executive director of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
The inability to fill front-line security jobs and retain employees, and a constant requirement for some guards to work two eight-hour shifts a day to fill vacancies have long been issues at the Tecumseh State Prison, the site of last weekend’s riot.
Worker turnover at Tecumseh is the highest in the state prison system. Officials have long talked of the difficulty in recruiting guards, at $15.15 an hour, to work in a rural location, an hour’s drive from either Omaha or Lincoln.
Guards and caseworkers complain about the lack of salary increases for longevity — which ended a few years ago — as well as mandatory overtime. It creates a revolving door at Tecumseh as experienced staff leave for higher-paying jobs at county jails or transfer to state prisons elsewhere to avoid long commutes and mandatory overtime.
“Your front-line staff, some of those are kids right out of high school,” said Mike Steadman, a former Tecumseh employee who now works for the state workers union. “Although they’re highly trained, they don’t have their spurs on yet, and that takes awhile.”
On top of that, corrections officers and caseworkers are supervising 1,000 inmates who have complained for years about a lack of prison jobs, training programs or college courses.
The mother of one inmate said her son waited 20 months before getting his first prison job, pushing lunch carts.
Kathryn Elseman of Omaha said her son, Ryan, joined Alcoholics Anonymous at the prison to break up the boredom, even though he’s not a drinker.
“There’s a lot of idle time there,” Elseman said. “I know as a felon you lose your privileges — I get it — but in that type of environment, why make it worse? Why make it so bad that they want to retaliate against you? And that’s what’s happening.”
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes declined requests for an interview, saying he was still consumed by last week’s riot, the deadliest in decades in Nebraska. Two inmates were found dead in the aftermath of the riot, presumed killed by other inmates.
In letters sent to staff members and inmates last week, the new director pledged to do everything he could to address staffing problems at Tecumseh as well as at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln. Frakes, who started his job in February, also said he planned to address concerns about the “idleness” of inmates.
Though corrections officials provided no further details, Frakes wrote that an initiative to fill vacant guard positions began several weeks ago. He also said he met last week with Gov. Pete Ricketts’ staff, including his new assistant on human resources, to develop strategies to recruit and retain staff.
“We will find solutions to this problem,” the prison director said.
It is a growing problem: as of March 31, the agency reported 103 vacancies for corrections officers, corporals, sergeants and lieutenants and caseworkers. That compares with 81 listed as of last June 30.
Other states have offered bonus pay or higher salaries to work at remote prisons, or altered work schedules to accommodate long commutes. State prison officials wanted to experiment with 12-hour shifts, three to four days a week, at Tecumseh. But the state employees union blocked the move, saying it hadn’t been negotiated and workers didn’t want the schedule.
Mike Marvin, the head of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said the union offered to discuss 12-hour shifts during recent contract negotiations, but the state rejected it.
Another staffing issue arose last week when state senators visited the state’s most crowded prison, the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln. Lawmakers said they were shocked to see three corrections officers supervising 104 inmates, including 40 sleeping on floor cots.
The “D&E center” is an inmate’s first stop in the prison system, where they’re assessed before being sent to other facilities. The center regularly holds more than 500 inmates in space built for 160.
“The craziest thing to us is that as overcrowding has gone up, the staffing hasn’t changed,” said State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln. “I’m concerned about corrections officers’ safety.”
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, who heads the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said Frakes has pledged to do an analysis of prison staffing and report back to lawmakers.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who opposed putting a prison in Tecumseh because of its rural location, said it should be closed, and the facility relocated to an urban area where labor wouldn’t be an issue.
“They don’t have the people to fill all of the slots,” Chambers said of Tecumseh.
Given the staffing issues at the prison, the senator said his only surprise was that a riot didn’t happen there sooner.
The turnover rate for all workers at Tecumseh was 23 percent as of September — the highest in the state prison system. Overtime costs there have about doubled in the past two years as officers have either volunteered or been ordered to work overtime to cover vacancies.
The experience level of the 74 corrections officers at Tecumseh is low — an average length of service of 3.7 years. The average is 4.4 years if you include all security workers at the prison: caseworkers, corrections corporals, sergeants and lieutenants. Of all those 264 workers, about half have less than two years of experience.
That compares with an average length of service of 9.5 years across the entire Corrections Department, and 13.1 years for all state employees, according to a 2013 state personnel report.
“If you’ve been there two years, you’re senior staff,” said a Tecumseh prison staff member who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity.
Experience is important at Tecumseh, said Steadman, the union official, because most of the inmates at the medium/maximum security prison are older, more serious offenders who are serving long sentences.
Prison officials have said last weekend’s riot began when a guard told a group of about 40 inmates in the yard to disperse.
Experience, Steadman said, tells you when to break up a group and when to call for backup. An experienced officer also may know the inmates, Steadman said, and may have built up relationships that could serve to protect a staff member. A shortage of staff can lead to more lockdowns, which then fuel inmates’ frustrations, said Camp, who has studied prison riots.
Lockdowns reduce recreation time in the yard or gym and disrupt activities and visits to the law library — a common complaint by Tecumseh inmates.
“It is very, very difficult to run a prison with a short staff,” Camp said.
He added that Nebraska is far from alone in staff shortages, and that studies of prison riots usually uncover some surprising causes that go beyond staff issues.
Complaints and threats of riots are not unusual at prisons, especially high-security facilities, Camp said. That makes it difficult to discern what constitutes a real threat and what doesn’t.
Last weekend wasn’t the first unrest at Tecumseh, though it was by far the most violent and costly.
In 2004, three years after the prison opened, staff members and their families picketed the prison after a series of assaults on staff. A year later, 70 percent of inmates signed a petition contending staff were “blatantly rude, disrespectful and racist.”
State corrections officials did not respond last week to requests for data on recent lockdowns, which can be warning signs that a riot is brewing.
Lockdowns, in which inmates are kept in cells and visits are canceled, were ordered last week at Tecumseh and just prior to that at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
Two assaults on staff at the State Penitentiary preceded the Tecumseh riot, which led to speculation that the unrest at Tecumseh was a copycat incident or sparked by inmates transferred to Tecumseh after the assaults at the penitentiary.
Frakes, the state corrections director, in a press release Friday, said there have been plenty of theories about what prompted the riot. But he said he’s not making any assumptions while he awaits the completion of an incident review by Tomas Fithian, a former colleague and prison security official from Washington state.
Frakes did say that he met with a group of Tecumseh inmates three weeks ago and “listened carefully” to their concerns about a lack of rehabilitation and job programs.
“I tried to make it clear that improvements would occur, but that it wouldn’t happen overnight,” he said.
State Ombudsman Marshall Lux, whose office is also investigating the prison riot, said it’s been a “big picture” problem at Tecumseh for years: not enough jobs, not enough programming.
“If you have those things, you have a much more sedate and manageable facility,” Lux said.
Following a riot, a corrections agency can go two ways, according to a 1995 study of eight prison riots. Camp was a co-author of the report for the U.S. Department of Justice.
If problems are addressed with adequate resources, a department can be strengthened; if not, employee morale can plummet, making things worse, the report said.
“Probably the No. 1 concern is staff wellness, not just compensation, but the stress that officers are under,” Camp said. “It’s one of the most stressful occupations. People in Nebraska should be very appreciative that people are willing to make this a career.”
World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.
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