LINCOLN — When state legislators visited Nebraska prisons this summer, they said they saw frustration, and even fear, in the eyes of prison workers.

Corrections workers, they said, worried about their safety because of staff shortages and an increase in assaults on staff, and spoke of the fatigue of having to frequently work double shifts to cover the vacant posts.

On Monday, legislators called on Gov. Pete Ricketts to do whatever is necessary to stem high turnover in state prison jobs; the department sees more than one corrections officer leave the job each day.

A 30-page report from a legislative oversight committee called for consideration of higher pay, better benefits, raises for longevity “and other retention-focused incentives” to stabilize staffing levels.

“We are encouraging the executive branch to do whatever is necessary,” said State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who chaired the oversight committee. “If we need to spend money, we need to spend money.”

A spokesman for Ricketts said Monday that he has increased pay for corrections officers over the past three years, and Nebraska now pays more than both Kansas and South Dakota. Additional bonuses were announced for those hired at the Tecumseh State Prison and the State Penitentiary in October, said Taylor Gage, the governor’s communications director.

“As we assess the effectiveness of the strategies, the Governor’s Office and corrections will work together to continue to make staffing and workforce needs a priority,” Gage said.

Monday’s report by the Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee was the latest in a string of legislative reports about the state’s troubled corrections system.

The oversight committee, consisting of seven state senators, visited all 10 state prisons, talking with staff as well as inmates. The group also took testimony on how to address corrections issues.

The bottom line, the report said, is that while some progress has been made, “much more work” is needed, and that addressing the staffing problems is “paramount.”

“They’ve still got challenges, certainly, but I think there’s a lot of potential,” said Ebke, who also chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

The committee, however, expressed some doubts that recent sentencing reforms are cutting into overcrowding that has elevated Nebraska to the second-most crowded system in the country.

Because of that, the committee recommended that corrections and the Board of Parole provide an assessment of the costs and risks of releasing hundreds of inmates if, by mid-2020, prison overcrowding is not reduced.

Under a state law passed two years ago, an “overcrowding emergency” will be automatically enacted if Nebraska’s prison population exceeds 140 percent of design capacity on July 1, 2020.

That would compel the State Parole Board to release hundreds of parole-eligible inmates until the prison population drops to 125 percent of capacity, which is considered the maximum “operational capacity” of a prison system. That would mean the release of 1,064 inmates under today’s prison count of 5,283.

Nebraska’s prison system now holds about 1,900 more inmates than its design capacity. The prisons have been at or over 140 percent of design capacity for a decade.

Both Ricketts and his predecessor, Gov. Dave Heineman, could have voluntarily declared overcrowding emergencies when overcrowding hit 140 percent, but they have declined to do so, saying the system could handle the overload.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Nebraska filed a lawsuit in August, claiming that the overcrowding had led to substandard medical and mental health care.

Crowding has also taken part of the blame for two deadly riots at the Tecumseh State Prison over the past 2½ years, and for the strangulation killing of an inmate by his cellmate this summer in a double-bunked solitary confinement cell that was designed to hold one inmate.

The Ricketts administration has taken several steps to address the high turnover rate at corrections, including a 7 percent pay raise for corrections officers over the past year and added incentives at the two prisons with the worst staffing problems.

Despite that, the report said, reductions in staff turnover have not been significant. In October, there were 150 vacant security jobs and 120 in training, leaving a total of 270 vacant posts.

The shortage of prison staff, the report said, is at the root of many of the problems in the Nebraska corrections system, including an increase in assaults on staff and a shortage of rehabilitation programming and prison jobs.

The document steered clear of some controversial issues, including doing away with mandatory minimum sentences, which is supported by defense attorneys and others as contributing to overcrowding and is opposed by prosecutors and others as an important tool in punishing serious crimes.

Instead, the report urges the formation of a “working group” of attorneys and others in the criminal justice system to look at sentencing reforms.

The committee expressed some concern that sentencing reforms enacted by the Legislature in 2015, as recommended by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, have fallen far short, so far, in reducing prison overcrowding.

Legislative Bill 605 was projected to reduce overcrowding by 921 inmates by July of this year, but had only decreased the prison population by 142.

Ebke said that lawmakers see a need to understand which inmates might be released from prison and whether the State Board of Parole has the staffing and funding to supervise a sudden increase in parolees.

The overcrowding emergency law gives the Board of Parole discretion to deny release to parole-eligible inmates if it believes they would pose a danger or would not comply with the terms of parole.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes told the oversight committee earlier this year that he doubted an emergency would be necessary in 2020.

paul.hammel@owh.com, 402-473-9584

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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