With last week’s opening of 100 more beds of prison space in Lincoln, the State of Nebraska continues nibbling around the edges of a more effective state prison system.
The state won’t make lasting progress until it finds ways to hire and retain enough skilled employees to reduce workloads and fully staff its crowded prisons.
The latest inspector general’s report on the state prison system reads like a cry for help from prison staff. It cites low morale, burnout and fatigue.
To address such issues effectively, the state needs to entice more people to sign on for difficult jobs — as well as adopt incentives that keep them on the job.
Much work remains to improve the state’s prisons, including reducing crowding, improving mental and physical health care and finding ways to reduce solitary confinement. Recent reforms — including changes to criminal sentences — are taking longer than expected to cut the prison population.
But staffing levels and staffing needs ought to be the top priority of Gov. Pete Ricketts, Corrections Director Scott Frakes, union leaders and the Legislature. In fact, state senators would do well to consider extending their independent oversight of the prison system.
Low staffing can undercut prison safety. It exhausts remaining workers who have to cover back-to-back shifts over extended periods. It also leads to less rehabilitation programming, which helps prisoners prepare for release.
The solution is more complex than simply throwing money at the problem. State senators had a good point last year when they sharply cut a funding request for more staff, arguing the department was struggling to fill jobs and couldn’t use the bulk of the funds.
The problem continues: Staffing vacancies totaled 292 in June.
Although the state is doing a better job attracting new hires, too many of those new hires soon depart for better-paying work, leaving the prisons inexperienced and understaffed.
Starting pay for corrections officers in Nebraska is better than in Kansas or Missouri, the report shows, but pay for experienced prison staff in Nebraska stagnates.
The strain of turnover spills over onto experienced workers, who cite increased mandatory overtime as a reason why they quit. Average overtime hours are up 50.5 percent from 2014, with overtime costs climbing to $9.3 million last fiscal year compared with $3.3 million in 2011.
One employee worked 90 hours a week throughout 2016. It’s no wonder that Corrections staff turnover last year was 25 percent, up from 18 percent in 2015. It’s a wonder turnover isn’t worse.
State leaders should find the most cost-effective ways to improve prison employee pay and working conditions, with particular emphasis on rewarding good, experienced employees.