The multiple problems plaguing Nebraska’s state prison system can’t be solved in one fell swoop. It’s a complex situation that will require a series of steps. But last week brought welcome encouragement when the Ricketts administration and the union for state corrections officers announced agreement on wage increases and a new pay structure.

The step increases — to be given to employees who remain on the job for designated amounts of time — have been a central request from the union for many years. It’s a major positive step that the Ricketts administration has worked out a multiyear pay approach it regards as fiscally achievable. The plan is subject to a ratification vote by union members.

Although the pay structure and increase in starting wages won’t produce an immediate turnaround in the prison system’s staffing woes, the new agreement can be one tool in a broader set of actions this year to provide relief.

“With this deal, our members will for the first time in decades be able to advance though a step pay plan,” said Mike Chipman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “This will encourage people to make corrections a long-term career choice and reverse the trend in retention, which is the most important need for staffing.”

The staffing shortfalls reached especially troubling proportions this year at both the Nebraska State Penitentiary and the Tecumseh State Prison, where staffing emergencies were declared. That meant 12-hour shifts for officers and curtailment of various services and activities.

Nebraska’s state prison system is the second-most overcrowded in the nation, and the trend line has been going in the wrong direction for years: Last month, the state’s 10 prisons held 5,660 prisoners, which is about 400 more inmates than two years ago and about 1,100 more than projected four years ago.

Meanwhile, state law says the Department of Correctional Services must declare an “overcrowding emergency” if the prison population — currently at about 160% of capacity — is not reduced to 140% of capacity by July 2020. The department has repeatedly said it’s doubtful it can meet the deadline.

The situation will require dialogue and cooperation between the administration and the Legislature during the 2020 legislative session that begins next week, with a coordinated response on the prison front. The new pay agreement provides a welcome indicator of the potential for further agreement and progress.

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