LINCOLN — As an emergency lockdown and “staffing emergency” were being implemented at the state’s largest prison on Thursday, an official with the corrections officers’ union expressed hope that the Department of Corrections will take a look at increasing salaries to address its high turnover and staffing shortages.
The union has long complained that the state is losing prison officers and corporals to county jails in Omaha, Lincoln and Papillion because those agencies pay higher starting wages, require less overtime, and provide regular wage increases for years of service.
“We keep saying that we have to address this structural matter — how they’re paying people. Maybe the time is right to address that now,” said Gary Young, the attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents state corrections officers, corporals and other security staff.
Thursday morning, staff at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln were informed via memo that a “staffing emergency” was being declared at the prison because of a shortage of staff and unsafe conditions for prison workers.
The emergency allows the prison to launch a temporary new work schedule involving 12-hour workdays for security staff as Corrections and the labor union work on “long-term solutions” to high turnover of new recruits and record-high overtime expenses for the remaining staff to fill vacant posts.
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New, much higher hiring bonuses of $10,000 were also announced for new workers at the State Penitentiary and three other facilities struggling with staffing problems, the Tecumseh State Prison, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.
In addition, current staff at the penitentiary will get $500 bonuses at the end of the year if they remain.
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, in his memo, told staff that this “drastic step” was needed to “ensure your safety and the safe operation of NSP.” He said the 12-hour shifts would reduce mandatory overtime shifts and were ordered because current hiring incentives hadn’t worked.
“There are no other viable options,” he said.
In a statement, Gov. Pete Ricketts, who hired Frakes four years ago, applauded the steps as “proactive” in protecting and increasing staffing in a tight labor market.
The staffing emergency order is similar to one enacted in the wake of a deadly riot at Tecumseh in 2015. The riot resulted in two inmate deaths and millions of dollars in damage.
Frakes emphasized that the order at the penitentiary was not sparked by any particular incident.
But that prison, in recent weeks, has been so short of staff that visitation, recreation and rehabilitation programs have been canceled on some days. Inmate disturbances and discovery of contraband like synthetic marijuana, handmade weapons and cellphones in cells has also been on the rise.
The penitentiary, which has a design capacity of 718, has been holding almost twice that many inmates in recent months.
Disturbances and organized cell searches have forced the prison into lockdowns — in which inmates must remain in their cells all day — more than once recently.
Under the staffing emergency, corrections officers and other security staff will work four 12-hour shifts in a row, then get three days off.
During the 12-hour night shifts, the prison will be locked down. Keeping inmates in their cells requires fewer staff members, but it could also increase tensions among prisoners.
Doug Koebernick, the Legislature’s inspector general for corrections, said that a “big question” will be how the inmates will react.
Koebernick began warning lawmakers a year ago that conditions were “alarming” at the State Penitentiary.
In his annual report last month, he renewed concerns about staffing shortages and the abundance of contraband. The penitentiary, he said, has about 130 vacant posts.
“I saw a need to do something,” he said of the changes announced Thursday.
Bonuses offered to newly hired corporals will be increased from $3,000 to $10,000, which Frakes said “kicks it up to an entirely new level.”
“I am highly encouraged that monetary offers of this size will have a significant impact,” he said.
This spring, the agency offered $3,000 bonuses to the first 100 new corporals hired, but as of September, not all of the bonuses had been claimed.
This summer, in a new contract with the corrections unions, the state agreed to allow “merit raises” for new and existing correctional officers, corporals and sergeants, giving them a chance to increase their pay by 12.5% over 10 years.
But state corrections union officials said that while it was a good first step, starting wages in state prisons still lag behind. Starting pay is higher at the Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster County Jails.
The staffing problems in state prisons have come with a cost — the state spent more than $15 million on overtime for security staff in 2018, which is about three times as much as a decade earlier and 23% more than the previous year.
Staffing shortages have also been cited by the ACLU of Nebraska, which has sued the state over prison overcrowding that has ranked as second-worst in the nation.
On Thursday, Danielle Conrad of the ACLU said the state’s prisons remain “in crisis,” noting that the Nebraska National Guard had to be called in last weekend to help with a search for contraband at the Lincoln Correctional Center.
Nebraska’s leaders, she said, “(need) to stop playing politics and to come to the table with all deliberate speed to enact smart justice reforms that have worked in other states.”