LINCOLN — The union that represents state prison workers joined the call Tuesday for construction of more prison beds but said Nebraska first needs to increase pay for guards or any new prisons built will be “empty.”

Jim McGuire, state president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Nebraska has failed to keep pace with the “market” for paying corrections staff, leading to high turnover, vacant posts and the likelihood of being unable to staff new prisons.

“You can’t build anything if you don’t have people to staff it,” McGuire said. “This state needs to take a more aggressive approach in wage and benefits, not just short-term fixes.”

The FOP official’s comments come a day after the Omaha Police Officers Association called on Gov. Pete Ricketts to authorize construction of new prison beds. Nebraska has fallen behind in prison expansion, the union said, and has the lowest number of prison beds of any neighboring state.

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The Omaha police union said that the answer to Nebraska’s chronically overcrowded prisons is to build more beds, not enact more sentencing reforms.

In 2015, the state enlisted the help of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments to craft a series of sentencing reforms in hopes of reducing prison overcrowding, avoiding construction of $300 million in new prisons and staving off a civil rights lawsuit.

But projections by the Justice Center were way off, and instead of the state’s prison population falling to a manageable 4,560 inmates, the number of prisoners has grown to a record high: 5,660 as of Friday. Only Alabama — which is under a federal order to relieve overcrowding — has a more overcrowded prison system than Nebraska.

McGuire said the corrections union was particularly concerned when State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said last week that the state can safely house only about 150 more inmates. Currently, McGuire said, the state lacks enough staff to deliver inmate rehabilitation programs, programs that protect the public.

The state recently declared a “staffing emergency” at its largest prison, the State Penitentiary, and implemented 12-hour shifts to cover vacant posts. Also announced were $10,000 hiring bonuses for new corrections officers.

But starting wages at state prisons still lag about $3 an hour behind those paid at county jails in Omaha and Lincoln. The state has said it will talk with the FOP about addressing the staffing problems.

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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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