LINCOLN — The director of Nebraska’s troubled prison system laid out an ambitious proposal on Thursday to add 164.5 new full-time positions and build a $75 million prison addition for elderly and seriously mentally ill inmates.
Scott Frakes, who was hired 19 months ago to turn around the Department of Correctional Services, unveiled a budget proposal for the next two fiscal years that would increase state spending on the Corrections Department by about 7.4 percent, or $20.1 million, on top of the new prison construction.
“It’s a very different day,” Frakes said in response to a report earlier Thursday that referred to the department as an agency “starving” for funds.
He added that he feels “very supported” in his proposals by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has called for a change of culture in the department.
State prisons have seen an array of problems in recent years, from chronic overcrowding to the mistaken early release of hundreds of inmates and a riot last year at Tecumseh State Prison that left two inmates dead and more than $2 million in damages.
State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, a key senator on prison issues, said she was pleased that the department’s proposal addressed some of its most critical needs, such as staff shortages and lack of programs to rehabilitate inmates.
But Bolz said she wants more details about the “expensive” prison construction proposal, and a clearer idea of how the department plans to fill vacancies in its behavioral health staff.
There are 55 vacancies in health services, which includes both behavioral health and medical staff.
Frakes said that a recent staffing analysis, as well as an escape by two inmates from a prison in Lincoln, pointed out the need for additional staff.
Of the 164.5 new positions sought, 135 would be “protective services” staff — those who guard inmates. The additional positions would represent about a 10 percent increase in staff. Frakes said they would be added at a rate of about 12 per quarter through mid-2019.
Staff turnover is still high, he said, and has been running above 30 percent for corrections officers, corporals and caseworkers. That is about twice the turnover rate that is manageable for prisons, Frakes said in a briefing with reporters.
He said he hopes to reduce that turnover by negotiating better pay for protective services staff, by better engaging them in their jobs and by improving working conditions.
Staffers have regularly complained about required overtime — about 16 hours a week — and the inability to get days off because of staff shortages. The state labor union that represents corrections officers says a lack of raises for longevity has been a major issue in the high turnover problem.
Inmates have also complained about the lack of programs and recreation, which contributes to unrest and assaults. One proposal unveiled on Thursday would invest about $3.6 million at the Tecumseh State Prison for a new job center for Cornhusker State Industries (CSI), the Corrections Department work program that builds furniture and other items using inmate labor. About 25 new jobs for inmates would be created; surplus funds from CSI would finance the structure.
The proposed $75 million “reception and treatment center” in Lincoln would include a 32-bed skilled nursing home for elderly, infirm inmates and a 32-bed secure mental health unit for the most seriously mentally ill and dangerous prisoners. It would replace facilities that are obsolete and ill-designed, he said, and would expand capacity.
The new facility, which wouldn’t open until 2020 or 2021, would also include expanded kitchen facilities for the adjacent Diagnostic and Evaluation Center and the Lincoln Correctional Center, which are among the most overcrowded prison facilities in the state.
The ACLU of Nebraska has threatened a lawsuit over the state’s overcrowded prisons, which hold about 1,900 more inmates than their design capacity.
Two prison expansions to address that threat are already in the works: a 160-bed addition at the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln and a 100-bed dormitory at the same facility.
Those two additions, plus an expected reduction in incoming inmates due to sentencing reforms adopted by the State Legislature, should ease overcrowding by the middle of next year, Frakes said.
He said that the reforms adopted in Legislative Bill 605 are reducing incoming prisoners at a slower rate than expected, but still should do enough to allow an end to using county jails to house state inmates. That would save about $3.6 million a year.
Frakes said that, overall, the Nebraska prison system had significantly fewer resources than he had been used to when he worked in Washington state. He said that his budget proposal is a “measured” effort at closing that gap.
Thursday was the deadline for state agencies to submit their budget proposals for the next two fiscal years. The Nebraska Legislature will debate those proposals in the 2017 session that begins in January.