The challenges continue for Nebraska’s state prison system. In the most recent development, ongoing staff shortages have led prison officials to declare a staffing emergency at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln. The directive mandates 12-hour shifts and could last six months, State Corrections Director Scott Frakes says. The penitentiary, with about one in four security posts unfilled, holds about twice as many inmates as its 718-person design capacity.

Many states face prison staffing challenges, given the difficult nature of prison work and the nation’s low unemployment rate. But the staffing emergency at the Lincoln penitentiary at least is spurring possible progress on one score: increased consideration of a prison-staff contract amendment to increase pay.

If that change can be reached, it has the potential to reduce the trend by which some state prison staff leave for higher pay at county jails. State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, has regularly noted that problem. The starting pay for corporals at state prisons is $18.44 an hour, compared with $21.25 an hour at the Sarpy and Douglas County Jails. State negotiators, of course, are obliged to try to provide a prudent salary boost while keeping the state budget within proper boundaries.

The state has made good-faith efforts this year to help address the salary issue. The contract agreed to in April gave some veteran staff a 12.5% increase and established regular “merit raises” for prison workers. Still, the penitentiary lost 70 corrections officers and corporals in the past seven months, with about 90 of the 350 security posts vacant.

The prison staffing challenges are complex, and there’s no single solution. Prison officials and members of the Legislature need to remain in conversation about additional practical options as the labor negotiators explore needed agreement on the salary issue.

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