Managing a state prison system comes with big challenges, no question. Prison employees by definition face considerable stress in carrying out their duties, and the current tight labor market adds to the difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff. Nebraska is one of many states facing prison staffing headaches.

The difficulty of the task, however, does not absolve the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services from making sure that prisons operate at the needed standard. Failure at that obligation carries big risks. A new report from the Nebraska inspector general for prisons offers a warning. Conditions at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln are “alarming” and “disturbing,” Doug Koebernick wrote. The prison holds about 1,300 inmates, ranging from maximum to minimum custody.

The number of vacant positions, at 77, is the highest in at least two years, the inspector general reported. Staff overtime has risen sharply in recent months. The prison operated at or below “critical” staffing — the minimum to enable proper functioning — 18 times since early July; in response, the prison shut down the library, school or gym to free up staff resources. 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.

The prison in May received 31 inmate requests for protective custody, segregating individuals from the rest of the inmates. That high a demand for stepped-up security raises serious concern, Koebernick wrote. His report also pointed to a worrisome level of contraband, including cell phones and K2, a synthetic form of marijuana linked to recent prison assaults. Indeed, authorities on Saturday restricted inmates in a housing unit at the prison after inmates assaulted a fellow prisoner, breaking his jaw, and 11 inmates were treated for K2.

The State Penitentiary inmate population is about 180% of design capacity, Koebernick reports. That’s worse than at Tecumseh State Prison, with an overcapacity at 105%. The maximum-security Tecumseh prison faces its own challenges and has been the site of two deadly riots in recent years.

Prisons that fail in their duties run the risk of federal intervention. That’s the situation in Alabama, where the U.S. Justice Department conducted a two-year investigation and concluded that the state men’s prisons violate inmates’ constitutional rights due to the level of violence, sexual abuse and other dangers. Understaffing is a key contributor to the problems, the report said.

In Nebraska, the state Department of Correctional Services has taken steps to try to address the staffing problem, with hiring bonuses and financial incentives for staff to refer a new hire. The department has bused 60 workers daily from Omaha to the Tecumseh facility.

Still, the staffing problem continues. There’s no magic solution, but the state should continue the hiring incentives and explore policy options, including adjusting funding levels, with state lawmakers.

Nebraska’s prison system has a duty to address these problems. Placing these heavy burdens on prison staff is unfair to workers, raises major safety concerns and potentially makes Nebraska vulnerable to federal intervention.

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