LINCOLN — An unprecedented lockdown and prison search ordered at the Nebraska State Penitentiary was a necessary “proactive” step to root out lingering problems with assaults and contraband like synthetic marijuana, the state prison director said Thursday.

“We want to get the point across that things have got to change,” Corrections Director Scott Frakes said. “We’re not just sitting around waiting for the next thing to happen. We’re being proactive.”

In an hourlong interview, Frakes said he ordered the lockdown of the state’s largest prison after an escalation of problems in recent weeks, and after assaults on staff and more incidents involving K2, a form of synthetic marijuana, over Labor Day weekend. He said he was not pressured by his boss, Gov. Pete Ricketts, or others to order the lockdown, which confines all inmates to their cells while the entire prison is searched.

The move has drawn support from prison staff, who have been working record amounts of overtime in a severely overcrowded facility that has been the site of 19 “incidents” of assault on corrections workers since April.

“It’s reinforcing to my staff,” he said. “It says we’re serious about this ... and, as we say, ‘I’ve got your back.’ ”

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The action marked the first time an entire state prison in Nebraska has been locked down to allow for a comprehensive search for contraband, such as weapons, drugs, prison-made alcohol and cellphones. Similar searches are conducted after major disturbances, Frakes said, but they are not this extensive.

Up to 50 extra personnel have been called in this week to the State Penitentiery, a minimum-maximum-security facility that held 1,375 inmates on Wednesday, almost double its design capacity. The lockdown and searches are expected to continue at least through Friday.

The penitentiary, according to a recent memo from a state legislative watchdog, has become the state’s most troubled prison, with staff shortages requiring security workers to log increased overtime hours — often two 8-hour shifts a day — and requiring prison visits and some prison programs to be suspended.

Frakes said the shortage of staff likely does contribute to fatigue and less intense searches for contraband. Contraband is a bigger problem at the penitentiary, he said, because of its location within Lincoln and because its solid walls are harder to monitor and easier to toss contraband over. Plus, some staffers have been caught smuggling goods, he said.

K2, a synthetic form of marijuana easily purchased at local shops or online, has been a particular problem, he said. It’s cheap and hard to detect — a drug dog, for instance, doesn’t always “hit” on it — and it doesn’t require a large volume to get someone high, Frakes said. Plus, smugglers are using new techniques, like spraying K2 on writing paper, to sneak it in.

More contraband contributes to more problems with assaults, Frakes said. It can spawn assaults over nonpayment for smuggled items, or assaults of guards to settle debts owed to other inmates, he said, along with assaults by intoxicated inmates.

Nebraska, the prison director said, isn’t the only prison system struggling with staffing problems and contraband. That, he said, has fed a national perception that prisons are “out of control and in crisis,” but he maintained that that’s not the case in Nebraska.

“A lot of bad things happen in prisons, due to their nature,” Frakes said. “We have to pay attention, and we have to address these issues.”

Inmates, he said, have so far been compliant with the searches, and staff plans to conduct the searches professionally and with as little disruption as possible to avoid increasing tensions.

Frakes declined to detail what changes would be made to increase safety at the prison but mentioned that drug dogs will undergo some new training in hopes of detecting K2 and that more restrictive mail and visitation policies will be considered, though he wants to continue to encourage correspondence and meetings with family.

“There will be changes,” he said.

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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