The Ricketts administration and the union representing the state’s prison staffers deserve great credit for breaking their protracted impasse over salaries and reaching significant agreement. Nebraska’s prison system remains saddled with challenges, but this encouraging new contract is a major step forward.
Under the contract, the state will begin offering salary increases based on longevity. A staff member with 10 years of service, for example, will receive a 12.5 percent increase this year. The state will provide regular “merit raises” as incentives for workers to remain employed with the state.
In addition, the Department of Correctional Services will have the option to use 12-hour shifts at high-security men’s facilities on up to 50% of posts. The aim is to reduce overtime and stress. Some corrections officers have had to work multiple 16-hour shifts per week to fill vacant posts in recent months, according to union representatives.
Although the contract won’t eliminate all stress and challenges inherent in prison work, these changes respond to longstanding complaints by union representatives and offer promise of reducing the high staff turnover and low morale. Turnover for the department was down slightly in January, to 31%, the first decline registered since 2010.
“We think it will help people stick around,” Gary Young, the attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, said of the new contract. “This will give our people a reason to start thinking about corrections as a career again, rather than a short-term job.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts said the agreement reflects “how much we value” staff members at state prisons and state mental health and youth rehabilitation facilities, all covered by the contract. The contract will cost a projected $5.3 million for the upcoming two-year state budget and fits within the budget proposal from Ricketts.
“Our protective services staff make great sacrifices to help keep our prisons secure and protect public safety,” said Corrections Director Scott Frakes. “This new merit system recognizes their experience and performance they bring to the jobs to help make our team successful every day.”
The state prison system still faces major overcrowding problems and of late has been challenging Alabama as the state with the most overcrowded prisons. Plus, state law requires that by July 2020, Nebraska needs to reduce its prison overcrowding to 140% — the system currently is at about 163% — or else begin paroling hundreds of inmates, well beyond current levels. The administration needs to coordinate with the Legislature on appropriate steps to deal with that and other challenges.
The new prison contract offers encouragement. It is the kind of flexibility and practical action the state needs if it’s to have a realistic chance to turn around its many prison problems.