LINCOLN — Overtime hours and turnover rates continued to increase among Nebraska correctional workers this year, despite recent reform efforts.
A report, issued Thursday by the inspector general of the Nebraska correctional system, said it remains in “a significant staffing crisis” that has broad impact.
“When correctional employees work high amounts of overtime, (low) morale, burnout, complacency and fatigue can take place, and mistakes or errors on the job can be made,” said Inspector General Doug Koebernick.
His second annual report showed little progress in the Department of Correctional Services on staffing and other key issues, including prison overcrowding, the overuse of solitary confinement and the lack of programming available to help inmates get ready for life back in the community.
Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Koebernick had shared many of those findings and recommendations over the past year. He said he plans to review the report carefully and to consider the inspector general’s recommendations.
“We have launched several initiatives to address challenges we have identified internally, including those the inspector general observed in his report,” Frakes said.
As part of addressing its problems, Koebernick called for the department to prepare a budget request to the Legislature and governor that fully addresses the agency’s needs.
The request should include the funds needed to recruit and retain all staff, not just front-line workers, he said.
It also should include the amounts needed for programming needs, infrastructure and building needs.
Pressure from past administrations prevented corrections officials from asking for all the resources they needed at that time, Koebernick said.
“It is now up to them to inform policymakers what they need to meaningfully improve their part of the justice system,” he said.
Spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said the department’s last budget request accurately reflected the agency’s needs. She said it asked for nearly 100 additional protective services staff, but the department was funded for less than 20.
The request also included additional program-related positions and capital construction projects to address capacity, which were funded.
The inspector general position was created in 2015 following a series of legislative investigations into the state prison system.
A special legislative committee in 2014 launched the first investigation to probe how corrections officials had dealt with Nikko Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate who went on a killing spree that left four dead in Omaha following his release from prison. That investigation broadened after The World-Herald uncovered widespread sentence miscalculations that led to the premature release of hundreds of inmates.
Among the concerns listed in the inspector general’s report:
» Overtime averaged 33,202 hours per month during the first half of 2017. That’s up 4.3 percent compared with last year and 50.5 percent compared with 2014. Money spent on overtime totaled nearly $9.3 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, up from $3.3 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011.
The report did not look at 2015 because of the unusual amount of overtime needed to deal with a fatal riot at the Tecumseh State Prison on Mother’s Day.
» The turnover rate for all corrections employees hit 25.03 percent last year, up from 17.88 percent in 2013.
Turnover for front-line workers — correctional officers, corporals and caseworkers — remained high but declined slightly from last year.
» There were 292 vacant positions in corrections as of June 30, up from 252 vacancies one year earlier.
» Nebraska’s prisons held 62 percent more inmates than they were designed to hold, as of Aug. 14. The state now ranks second nationally in the level of prison overcrowding.
Koebernick called for the department and the State Board of Parole to put together a plan for dealing with a correctional system overcrowding emergency, if one was declared.
State law allows the governor to call such an emergency if the prison population is more than 40 percent above design capacity.
Starting in 2020, an overcrowding emergency would be declared automatically if the prisons remain above that population threshold.
Making such a declaration would require the state to parole enough inmates to bring the population down to capacity.
» Use of restrictive housing, commonly known as solitary confinement, and protective housing increased despite changes meant to decrease their use.
There were 389 inmates in restrictive housing and 447 in protective management units as of August, or 15.9 percent of the total prison population.
By comparison, there were 319 inmates in restrictive housing and 310 in protective management in November 2014, or 11.7 percent of the total.
» The rising number of inmates in restrictive housing has led to the practice of double-bunking inmates who have the most difficulties getting along with others.
Koebernick said the practice worsens the effects of restrictive housing.
Double-bunking forces inmates to share an 88 square-foot room with one desk, one chair, one sink and one toilet. The inmates are kept in their cells for all but a couple hours of the day.
In July, inmate Patrick Schroeder pleaded guilty to strangling Terry Berry Jr., his roommate in a double-bunked restrictive housing cell.