It’s a familiar, wearying pattern: Another state report, another searing examination of the multiple problems weighing on Nebraska’s troubled state prison system. The 271-page report by Inspector General Doug Koebernick described a host of challenges, including:
» Prison overcrowding that exceeds the levels in all but one other state.
» Record $15 million overtime in 2018 by prison staff, despite incentives in the most recent contract. Overtime in 2018 was up 23% from the year before.
» Retention of only a third of new hires who were given $2,500 bonuses in 2017 to work at Tecumseh State Prison.
» A significant increase in smuggled drugs and other contraband.
» Too many inmates released directly from solitary confinement after spending more than three months in such isolation cells.
Given present conditions, Koebernick expressed doubt that the state will be able to adequately staff two prison additions now under construction. “Nebraska can hope that the staffing situation will resolve itself in the next year or two,” Koebernick wrote, “but definite action needs to be taken to make it so, or else these new units will be short-handed from the first day of operation.”
Koebernick recommends creation of a task force to develop new approaches to hiring and retaining staff. He also calls for higher starting salaries and wage increases for experienced workers. Any approaches along that line will move forward only with adequate communication between the Governor’s Office and the Legislature. State senators ultimately hold the pursue strings, and it’s highly likely that state senators will push a host of prison-related proposals in the 2020 session.
The last thing the state needs on this problem is for the executive and legislative branches to pursue separate courses without any coordination — that’s a recipe for frustration and possible stalemate. Sure, lawmakers and executive-branch officials will disagree on some issues, as they have in the past. But the more they can work out agreement on specific proposals, the better the state will be served.
Such coordinated leadership by state officials is the best path forward on this complex and difficult issue.