LINCOLN — For the second time in about a month, a shortage of security workers has forced a “staffing emergency” at a Nebraska prison.
On Monday, Corrections Director Scott Frakes announced that the Tecumseh State Prison will move from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts as of Dec. 4, with nighttime inmate activities and visitation curtailed, because of a shortage of prison guards.
A month ago, a similar emergency was declared at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln. But that step, unlike the emergency declared at Tecumseh, required an immediate lockdown of inmate cells.
The Tecumseh prison, in rural, southeast Nebraska, has suffered from high staff turnover for years, increasing overtime expenses to fill vacant posts. The state has upped wages and offered hiring bonuses with little impact. In recent months, up to 80 corrections officers a day have been bused from Omaha to fill the ranks.
Changing to 12-hour shifts will require fewer employees, but making that change, per union contract, requires a “staffing emergency” to be declared. Employees will work four 12-hour shifts a week, with three days off, Frakes said in a press release Monday.
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Canceling inmate activities at night, such as clubs and recreation, has drawn some criticism among inmates’ families and advocates for rehabilitation programs, but Frakes said Monday that accommodations will be made “where possible.”
“It is unfortunate to disrupt the current routine, but this move is absolutely necessary to ensure that a reliable number of staff are available to operate (the prison) in a safe and secure manner,” he said.
Frakes said Monday that he could not say how long the staffing emergency at Tecumseh would continue.
Mike Chipman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents corrections officers and corporals, said he was not surprised by the declaration.
“The State Pen and Tecumseh have been in a staffing crisis for a while now. We’ve been saying that for the last year,” Chipman said.
The union, and some state senators, have said the only solution to the staffing shortages is to increase prison salaries. County jails in Omaha and Lincoln pay about $3 more per hour.
Chipman said he was encouraged that the state had recently “taken the situation seriously” and reentered negotiations with the union on issues of pay and longevity increases.
Last month, corrections tripled the hiring bonuses offered to new hires. Now, new corporals hired at the State Penitentiary, Tecumseh and the Lincoln Correctional Center/Diagnostic and Evaluation Center can receive an extra $10,000 if they stay three years.
Frakes announced Monday that staff members at Tecumseh who are still on the job as of Jan. 31 will receive an automatic $500 bonus.