Peru State program will give criminal justice students experience in Nebraska prisons

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – Peru State College and the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services teamed up to create a one-of-a-kind apprenticeship for students studying criminal justice.

That was one announcement made by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other officials at a Monday press conference on staffing shortages throughout the department.

Scott Frakes, director of NDCS, and Jason Jackson, Nebraska’s chief human resources officer, also attended the press conference.

Recently, Nebraska has implemented various initiatives to help fill vacancies and retain employees within NDCS facilities.

A deal in November between state officials and the state correctional workers’ union provided an $8-an-hour raise for staffers and double-time pay for overtime.

Mike Chapman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the workers, called the agreement “game-changing” when it was announced. Under the new contract, new corporals in the prison system start at $28 an hour.

Officials, including Ricketts, said the raises approved in the union agreement have nearly tripled the number of weekly job applications to the Corrections Department.

Weekly applications rose from 34 a week in December to 96 a week by the end of February.  Vacancies throughout the agency have fallen by more than half, from 427 to 206.

Recently, recruits are coming from 33 other states, and around 50 new hires are returning to the agency after having previously left.

Nebraska’s prison system has struggled with worker shortages for years, a problem that worsened during the pandemic and raised security concerns.

In addition to monetary incentives, NDCS and Peru State have formed an apprenticeship for students studying criminal justice at the college.

The program allows students to gain experience with a focus on leadership while getting paid.

Frakes said he can’t wait to see the first graduate of the program and anticipates them taking a leadership role immediately after graduation.

By April 1, Frakes said he expects to see a “significant downturn” in NDCS as new hires complete training and enter the system.

Despite the increase in recent hires, both Tecumseh State Correctional Institution and the state’s Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln continue to operate under abnormal schedules.

The facilities are currently operating on 12-hour shifts Monday through Thursday, restricting inmate movement on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Frakes said it’s his goal to create a consistent 7-day, 16-hour schedule as staffing levels rise.

Nebraska lawmakers are expected to debate more prison issues in the coming weeks as they decide on whether to spend $270 million on a new state prison.  Ricketts has said the project is critical to replace the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, but some state senators aren’t convinced of the need.

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