“We’re in Crisis Mode on Many Fronts”

Judiciary Hearing on Staffing Crisis at NDCS

Lincoln, Neb. (KLKN)-The hearing started a few minutes behind schedule, and the first testimony with the Director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services lasted nearly two hours.  Areas that are in dire need of improvement were addressed and identified, but solutions to these issues are still in the works.

“It’s a real tough spot we are in,” said Senator DeBoer.

“Yes,” said Scott Frakes Director of NDCS.

“I hate to ask this question, but what happens next?  Is lockdown seven days a week, is that the next?  Is there another step in between that?  How close are we to getting to that step?” Said Senator DeBoer.

“For the three facilities that are on the four-day operational schedule, there is still some room to make those days even shorter.  That would be the next step.  I absolutely hope we don’t need to go there because then-Senator Pansing Brooks, programming is not going to get done period and that would be one of the things that are going to get cut,” said Frakes.

Director Scott Frakes of NDCS said, there are 625 staff vacancies right now.  They would need at least 100 new employees to get out of being locked down three days a week, or as the director explained it, to get out of working four 12 hour shifts a week.  Even with hiring 100 more employees, the department would still be understaffed and in crisis mode.  Employees are working mandatory overtime, and are exhausted, and inmates are not enjoying being stuck in their cells for three days a week.  This new schedule also prohibits some inmates from visiting with family, as they can no longer visit on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.  There have been 23 inmate suicide attempts reported in the last 10 months, which the NDCS Director said is the highest it’s been in 5 years.  Senator Lathrop spoke with an employee during a visit to one of the prisons, and he shared what that employee told him.

“He said, you know I was here for both of the riots that we had here and it’s worse right now than it was then,” said Senator Lathrop.

They have hired 2 full-time recruiters, which is a new position for the department.  They are doing a lot more advertising through social media and billboards hoping to also bring people to the state for the job.  Recruiters are also attending a lot more job fairs.  They are working on pay raises and bonuses, and currently, the requirements for the job include a high school diploma, nothing prohibiting them from carrying a firearm and being interested in the job.  One major issue they are finding, is people want flexibility with their work schedules, and the department encourages creative ways to offer flexibility.

“At one time this was a job that people stood in line for. It had benefits, it was well respected. People in our generation saw this as a career path, young people don’t see this as a career,” said Senator Lathrop.

Staffing shortages and overcrowding in our correctional facilities have been the topic of conversation for years, but the issues continue to get worse.  Senator Pansing Brooks is not happy with the progress so far, and doesn’t feel like opening another facility will solve any problems.

“I see nothing that is changing, nothing that is helping us get to a point where I feel like oh we are solving that issue. We haven’t solved overcrowding, understaffing, we haven’t solved any of that. We haven’t solved enough people to take the inmates to take the classes, even though I hear there are people in classes available that are out there, but they are in their cells three days a week. So I am very concerned that the whole goal is let it all fail, and then we say private facilities you must come in and take over this. We lose all ability of oversight in the legislature, so there is my great concern,” said Senator Pansing Brooks.

“Since I came to this state, and I believe I’ve said it in hearings and I know I’ve said it in other venues, I don’t support operations of prisons by private entities,” said Frakes.

Another possible solution brought up was working on early releases for inmates who are eligible and working on recidivism to help with the population inside our prisons.

“In my opinion, if you are terminally ill or using a walker or wheelchair, there is probably a good chance you are not a threat to society anymore. I am excited for the opportunity to try and get to some solutions,” said Senator McKinney.

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