Chronic Staffing Shortage Worsens In Nebraska State Prisons

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska's prison workforce shortage has become so severe that two facilities have cut back on the hours when they're fully operational and a third will do the same starting next week, the state corrections director said Wednesday.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said the prisons now have more than 625 job openings, thanks to an increase in staff turnover, which has forced remaining workers to pick up the slack.

“Like many employers, we have plenty of jobs to offer but no one to fill them,” Frakes said in testimony to the legislative committee that oversees prisons.

Frakes said two Lincoln prisons, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, have already switched to a four-day, 12-hour schedule for most prison activities, including family visits and recreation time.

The new schedule limits those activities to Monday through Thursday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., when more employees are on the clock. Inmates face tighter restrictions during off hours, allowing the prisons to operate with fewer workers.

“We've had to take unprecedented steps” to ensure adequate staffing, Frakes said.

Frakes said the same restrictions will go into effect Monday at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, a major prison in southeast Nebraska that was the site of deadly riots in 2015 and 2017.

Lawmakers convened the hearing to discuss persistent staffing shortages and turnover in Nebraska's corrections department. An independent watchdog reported last month that the problem has created dangerous conditions, including maximum-security units that are going unstaffed for hours at a time.

“It's not safe for our community to have people who are overworked and tired representing our public safety community,” said state Sen. Anna Wishart, of Lincoln, whose district includes a large number of prison staffers and inmates.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said the core issue appears to be pay. The corrections department has taken numerous steps to attract workers in recent years, including hiring bonuses, which stoked resentment from some longtime employees.

Lathrop said younger employees are also “looking for a better work-life balance” in their jobs which prison officials ought to explore.

Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said the prisons are losing a lot of employees to higher-paying corrections jobs in Douglas and Lancaster counties, and to private Lincoln hospitals such as Bryan West.

Some Nebraska state employees could see significant pay increases under a new, tentative labor contract agreement announced last week. The contract, which hasn't been ratified, would give covered state employees a $3-per-hour pay raise.

However, many Nebraska prison employees are now represented by a different union, the Fraternal Order of Police.

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