LINCOLN — State corrections officials are requesting authority to hire 29 new security personnel to more safely operate Nebraska prisons.
But the request, released Wednesday by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, is already drawing skepticism from some state lawmakers.
State Sens. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse and Kate Bolz of Lincoln, who review and approve spending requests as part of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said that filling existing vacancies and retaining staff appear to be bigger problems facing state prisons, not adding more staff.
“I’d be inclined to give them (the extra staff positions) if they could fill them and keep them,” Watermeier said. “But it’s always the same story.”
Bolz pointed out that a recent report put staff turnover at Corrections at 25 percent, with 292 job vacancies as of June 30.
“The heart of the issue is the Department of Corrections needs to address how to address their turnover and their recruitment process,” she said.
The so-called “deficit request” for additional staff comes as the state prison system struggles with overcrowding, increases in overtime costs and a rise in assaults on staff. ACLU of Nebraska recently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the agency.
Corrections plans to use unspent funds, saved because of all of the vacant posts, and efficiencies to add the extra positions without seeking additional state funds.
The new positions, both corrections corporals and sergeants, would not be hired all at once and would not begin to be deployed until about a year from now, according to Dawn-Renee Smith, the agency’s spokesperson.
A year ago, a staffing analysis recommended the hiring of dozens more “protective services” employees — the workers who guard inmates — to safely operate state prisons.
The agency asked for 48 new corrections officers for 2017-18, which would be about a 5 percent increase in security staffing. But the Legislature reduced that to 19, citing a tight state budget and expressing doubts that the agency could expand its staff when it already had dozens of vacancies to fill. So the 29 new staff members requested on Wednesday would fulfill the request for 48 positions.
“My goal is for custody staffing to be consistent with the staffing analysis, and this request gets us one step closer to that goal,” State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said in a press release.
He recently told reporters that he had about 150 vacancies among security staff, with most of them at two higher-security prisons that have seen disturbances in recent years, the Tecumseh State Prison and the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
Frakes has said that 19 new posts authorized a year ago were filled at prisons in Omaha and Lincoln that have not had the hiring and retention problems, or the unrest, seen at Tecumseh and the penitentiary.
Four inmates have died in riots at Tecumseh over the past 2½ years, and millions of dollars in damage was done. Another inmate was killed by his cellmate in a solitary confinement cell this spring. The State Penitentiary has had lockdowns in recent weeks as a result of less serious disturbances there.
At a legislative hearing last week, current corrections workers expressed concern about their safety and low staff morale.
There was a hopeful note in the agency’s budget request on Wednesday. Corrections said that a recent transition from contract medical services at Tecumseh to services provided by state employees has gone well.
Gov. Pete Ricketts will submit his recommendations for adjustments in the budget in January, then the Legislature will scrutinize the requests.