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Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes. In a statement, he said low unemployment makes it “challenging to fill vacancies” at state prisons.

LINCOLN — Staff shortages, record-high overtime and the existence of the synthetic drug K2 and other contraband have made the State Penitentiary potentially the most troubled prison in Nebraska, according to a recent memo from a state legislative watchdog.

Doug Koebernick, the inspector general for corrections, used terms like “alarming” and “disturbing” to describe conditions at the State Penitentiary, the state’s largest prison. It holds about 1,300 inmates, ranging from maximum to minimum custody.

He said problems at the penitentiary in Lincoln may now exceed those at the Tecumseh State Prison, which has been the site of two deadly riots since 2015.

The director of the state prison system, Scott Frakes, said in a statement that a broad labor shortage is affecting the Corrections Department as well as other occupations and that prisons across the country are struggling to hire and keep staff. The department recently offered hiring and referral bonuses, and provided a pay raise, in hopes of turning around staffing problems.

“The bottom line is that in an economy where unemployment is low, and opportunities abound, it is challenging to fill vacancies,” Frakes said.

But State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who led a special legislative probe into problems at Corrections in 2015, said that the steps being taken by the department are “insufficient” and that unless the demand for overtime, including mandatory overtime ordered at the last minute, is reduced, staffing problems will just get worse.

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“(Corrections) is not competing well with other kinds of work that involves the same skill set,” Lathrop said. Workers, he said, can get better wages, not be ordered to work mandatory overtime shifts, and not sacrifice their family life at other places, including county jails in Nebraska.

Koebernick, in an eight-page memo sent Monday, said that conditions might be the worst at the penitentiary because overcrowding is much higher than at Tecumseh — about 180% of design capacity at the penitentiary versus 105% at Tecumseh. There also appears, he said, to be more banned contraband within the Lincoln facility, including cell phones and K2, a synthetic form of marijuana that has been linked to some recent assaults behind bars.

Among the concerns expressed in the report:

  • Overtime worked by “protective services staff,” the officers and corporals who guard the inmates, has risen sharply in recent months, and was 45% higher than in February.
  • There are 77 vacant positions among security staff, the highest number in at least two years, leading to more mandatory and voluntary overtime.
  • Eighteen times since early July, the penitentiary operated at or below “critical” staffing, a minimum staffing level that requires some activities, such as at the library, school or gym, to be shut down.
  • On more than one occasion, an entire shift of protective services staff — typically the overnight shift — was ordered to stay to fill vacant posts on the day shift. Koebernick said that some security employees work three 16-hour shifts a week and that one worker told him he had worked 80 hours in one week.
  • In May, 31 inmates at the penitentiary requested protective custody — a cell segregated from the rest of the inmates — which is a sign of a “troubled institution,” the inspector general said. The number of requests was three times higher than at Tecumseh.

Across the prison system, overtime worked by employees peaked at 50,000 hours in June, according to the report, which is the highest level since the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Mother’s Day uprising at the Tecumseh prison, which left two inmates dead and resulted in a housing unit being trashed and scorched.

Staffing problems have plagued the Nebraska prison system in recent years, especially at Tecumseh, a farm town about an hour’s drive from both Omaha and Lincoln. In recent months, 60 workers a day have been bused from Omaha to fill the ranks at Tecumseh.

But why is it hard to hire corrections staff in Lincoln, a growing city of 284,000?

Frakes was not available for comment, but Koebernick said it’s possible that the pool of potential prison workers in Lincoln, which has four state prison facilities, isn’t as large as once thought.

A Corrections Department spokeswoman, Laura Strimple, said Tuesday she did not know if busing workers from Omaha was being considered to fill posts at the penitentiary. She did say that meals, lodging and transportation costs have been provided to some prison workers from McCook to fill empty posts in Lincoln. Koebernick said some staff from the Lincoln Correctional Center have been used to fill posts at the penitentiary.

In April, state prison officials announced a $3,000 hiring bonus for the first 100 new employees hired at four state prisons, including the penitentiary and Tecumseh, as well as financial incentives for staff to refer a new hire. Strimple said that the hiring bonus is still available and that extending it is under consideration.

A job fair will be held next Tuesday at the penitentiary, she added, and Corrections continues an advertising campaign to attract new recruits.

Koebernick issued a report in October 2018 about deteriorating conditions at the penitentiary. He said the most recent memo was spurred by an incident in July in which the penitentiary lacked enough staff to allow inmate visitation, and a July 10 visit to the prison that was scrubbed because there were no staff available to accompany him.

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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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