LINCOLN — To overcome years of neglect in its state prison system, Nebraska needs to increase funding significantly, according to a special legislative report released on Thursday.
Right now, one state senator said, the agency is caught in a “vicious cycle” in which overcrowded prisons and high employee turnover contribute to other problems, such as insufficient rehabilitation programs, inadequate treatment of mentally ill inmates and safety risks for prison workers.
All of those problems, the legislative report said, can be traced back to a lack of resources and funding over the past decade.
“Getting the department back to where it needs to be will require significant resources in the next legislative session and beyond. Tough decisions need to be made,” said State Sen. Patty Pansing-Brooks of Lincoln, who has led the special legislative committee looking into problems in the state prison system. “Our state budget can no longer be balanced on the back of cuts in corrections.”
The 48-page report was issued by the Department of Correctional Services’ Special Investigative Committee, which has been probing problems within state prisons since 2014.
The report offered 33 suggestions, including:
» Fully funding and “expediting” budget proposals from the Corrections Department.
» Studying criminal sentences to see whether more low-level, nonviolent offenders could be punished without expensive incarceration, which contributes to the state’s prison overcrowding problems.
» Trying new approaches to recruit and retain behavioral health staff members, such as increased wages, improved working conditions and recruitment of more recent college graduates.
» Increasing rehabilitation programming, including more cognitive behavioral therapy and gender-specific programming for women.
» Developing “mission specific” housing for individuals with mental illness and other specific needs, and amending restrictive housing rules to meet American Bar Association standards.
» Reviewing and rethinking a proposed $75 million prison addition to provide specialized cells for elderly and mentally ill inmates before moving ahead with that “bricks-and-mortar” project.
Along with the prison expansion, the agency’s current budget request seeks to increase staff by 164 positions. But adding staff and building the prison addition would be spread out over four years, which the legislative report said isn’t fast enough.
“We need to step it up and get to where we need to be as quickly and efficiently as we can,” said State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a member of the special legislative committee.
The report comes two weeks before the Nebraska Legislature convenes in January. Lawmakers are likely to make budget cuts to close a $900 million gap between projected spending and revenue.
The legislative corrections assessment also came out a day after the Corrections Department released its own report, highlighting steps the agency has taken to improve staff morale, reduce turnover and increase programming options.
The positive tone of the state agency’s report differed starkly from the legislative assessment, which called prison overcrowding “an acute problem” that threatens public safety by releasing inmates who aren’t prepared for life outside prison because they haven’t received the proper rehabilitation programs.
Corrections Director Scott Frakes, who was hired almost two years ago to turn around the troubled agency, said Thursday that he was still digesting the legislative report but agreed that a lack of resources has plagued his agency.
“Until we’re able to slow down (staff) turnover and improve recruitment, we’re going to continue to be challenged” in turning the agency around, Frakes said.
He added that he was “incredibly proud” of the progress that has been made, and said the Corrections Department has been able to make improvements despite having to deal with some “catastrophic issues,” including a prison riot in May 2015 that left two inmates dead and the Tecumseh State Prison ransacked.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, Frakes’ boss, said in a prepared statement Thursday that his administration has initiated several reforms in the Corrections Department, including raising officer salaries, automating sentence calculations and expanding existing facilities.
Ricketts said “additional investments” will be outlined in his State of the State address next month.
Krist said Ricketts had inherited the problems at Corrections and has taken steps to correct them. But Krist echoed the committee’s report in expressing worry that Nebraska will face federal sanctions and risks a civil rights lawsuit if it doesn’t accelerate improvements.
Turnover among front-line security staff has hovered around 31 percent, which forces increased overtime and lowers morale.
Frakes said recent steps taken by the department, including raises in salary of 4.5 percent to 6 percent for front-line security staff, had slightly reduced turnover in October and November.
“It’s early — they are preliminary results — but we’re heading the right way,” he said.
The number of inmates in state prisons has remained steady at about 5,300 inmates, or about 2,000 more than the prisons’ design capacity. But Frakes said he is still optimistic that reforms suggested by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments will succeed in reducing overcrowding.
The legislative report said one of the big problems causing overcrowding is that inmates were unprepared and ineligible for release on parole because of a lack of available rehabilitation programs.
Frakes said that his department has laid the foundation to improve and expand programming and that improvements should be seen soon.
He added that construction has begun on a 100-bed dormitory for inmates at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln and is on track to be completed by next fall. The $75 million prison expansion, he added, is still in the design phase.
The special legislative committee was created two years ago to study multiple problems with the state corrections system. Those included the case of Nikko Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate who killed four people in Omaha shortly after his release in 2013, and a sentencing-miscalculation scandal involving the premature release of hundreds of inmates.
The committee’s latest report came after 10 public hearings over the past year.