LINCOLN — The Democratic challenger for Nebraska governor called upon Gov. Pete Ricketts to fire the prison director Thursday, laying blame for an overcrowded correctional system that has produced deadly riots, officer assaults and high rates of staff turnover.
But corrections officials refused to allow State Sen. Bob Krist to make his announcement from the parking lot of the Tecumseh State Prison as the candidate had intended. So Krist moved the press conference to a driveway leading to the prison property.
Krist said the governor should immediately terminate Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. The Omaha senator, who has served on special legislative committees aimed at addressing prison problems, said Frakes has had ample time to show progress.
When the Republican governor took office in 2015, Nebraska had the fourth-most overcrowded prisons. Now the state has the second-most overcrowded system, Krist said at a press conference outside the Tecumseh prison.
“We are now facing the very likely situation that the federal government will come in and force us to release hundreds of prisoners back into our communities before they are ready,” he said.
The Ricketts campaign defended Frakes and said the governor’s budgets have sought about $87 million in additional operating funds and $111 million in new capital construction for Nebraska’s prisons.
Over the past year, Frakes has overseen expansion of rehabilitation programs, a new 100-bed prison dormitory and a new evaluation tool to guide inmates to needed programs.
“Bob Krist’s campaign for governor is sputtering, so he continues his desperate attacks,” said Matthew Trail, the governor’s campaign manager.
In a press release, Trail said Krist had sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have led to the immediate release of more than 400 inmates to help address the overcrowding emergency. Frakes said about 60 percent of the state’s parole-eligible inmates have been convicted of violent offenses and about half have reoffended.
Krist called the statement a “partial truth,” saying he would have advocated the release of nonviolent offenders eligible for parole, as well as elderly, dying prisoners.
Still, overcrowding remains a major problem and the subject of a federal lawsuit that could prompt the courts to order prisoners to be released as a remedy. Nebraska prisons housed a daily average of 5,343 inmates in 2017, about 155 percent of design capacity.
Under state law, the governor must declare a prison emergency in 2020 if the inmate population exceeds 140 percent of design capacity.
Despite the state’s efforts to raise pay for correctional officers, staff turnover and mandatory overtime remain problems at the higher-security prisons. In addition, four inmates died in 2015 and 2017 when rioting prisoners took over control of some housing units at the Tecumseh prison.
The Nebraska Association of Public Employees, which represents corrections staff, also announced it was endorsing Krist.