The director of Nebraska’s understaffed and overcrowded state prison system proposes adding 164 new full-time positions and $75 million in expanded prison space.
Such a blunt public assessment of the needs of a starved system is a constructive change after the prisons’ drift and instability under former Govs. Dave Heineman and Mike Johanns.
Corrections Director Scott Frakes rightly called this “a very different day.”
It’s never easy to swallow a potential state spending increase of $20.1 million over two years — a task made harder as Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Legislature work to develop a tax-reform package in an already budget-lean year.
But Frakes was tasked with rebuilding the Corrections Department. He has offered a realistic plan that focuses on adequate staffing levels to protect the public, employees and inmates. He and the governor have joined lawmakers in a consensus that the department needs to raise its pay and incentives to attract and retain more of those employees. Frakes’ plan would add space to prisons over the long term where needed.
State and prison leaders appear to be listening to lawmakers who called for a boost in staffing levels nearer to the level recommended by a team of prison employees. The department is now asking to add 164.5 full-time employees, up from the 138 Frakes proposed earlier this month.
Frakes proposes battling a 30 percent staff turnover rate on two fronts: a significantly larger staff, combined with ongoing negotiations with the state employees union on issues such as higher pay and longevity pay.
The department proposal, on top of previous efforts to reform who is sent to prison and for how long, should chip away at crowding over time.
Progress is vital: Nebraska’s prison system remains the nation’s fourth most crowded by percentage, at 158 percent of designed capacity.
Frakes’ budget request, and the governor’s response, are a sign of healthy change in the culture of Corrections. Lawmakers should reward such timely candor with thoughtful action.