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Nebraska corrections director appears before state committee

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 5:49 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - Nebraska’s corrections director appeared before the state judiciary committee Wednesday for another round of questions and answers on state prisons.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has been experiencing a staffing crisis for more than two years now, with no end in sight: There’s simply not enough correction officers to manage the state’s prisons.

NDCS Director Scott Frakes told the committee on Wednesday that he’s hopeful a new contract with better pay will help retain and attract more corrections officers. But state senators got him to acknowledge that money alone won’t solve the problem.

Since 2015, 4,200 corrections officers have left the job. Frakes said the state’s three largest prisons are short 35-40 corrections officers each.

But why have they left?

“Why are we failing so bad at exit surveys?” State Sen. Tom Brandt asked Wednesday.

“It’s an email. In the past, I’ve testified how people have come to me that the only person — the only person — who talked to them after they left was Survey Monkey,” said Corrections Inspector General Doug Koebernick.

Corrections management said it recently started in-person exit interviews instead of emails to get a better gauge on any new issues about why officers are leaving.

“The elephant in the room is we need sentence reform, parole reform — all those things need to take place for this to ever work,” said State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha.

He said he is against building any new prisons believing that the state is too quick to lock people up.

“We have to get past the notion of being tough on crime,” McKinney said. “Let’s do all those things that push up mass incarcerations and say ‘no’ to everything that’s needed to decrease it.”

The committee also hear about plans for alternatives to jail, questioning why the state is spending $55 million to expand a Lincoln prison when its only spent $5 million on problem-solving courts.

“This is a bargain with better outcomes,” State Sen. Steve Lathrop said.

Nebraska has 32 problem-solving courts ranging from drug courts to court for veterans — ways to restore an individual’s dignity while making them a productive member of society. Following a rigid set of rules means that in return, the criminal charge goes away.

“This works,” State Sen. Suzanne Geist said. “I would love to see probation, parole, corrections go to the model that reflects what you’re doing with specialty courts.”

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. He 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.

As it stands, in order to make up for the lack of corrections staff, Nebraska is limiting the movements of inmates at its biggest prisons. That means they are rarely out of their cells every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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