Corrections still plagued by high turnover

LINCOLN — Turnover problems persist within the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, leaving lawmakers wondering what can be done.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes appeared before the Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday to ask for additional staff and to testify against a bill that would provide longevity pay.

Nebraska’s prisons have struggled with overcrowding, high staff turnover and difficulty hiring. The state’s prisons are now the second-most crowded in the nation, and the ACLU of Nebraska has asked the courts to intervene.

Frakes is seeking 29 new staff members, 21 corporals and eight sergeants, which would get the department up to the 48 positions recommended by a staffing analysis.

Department figures indicate that turnover among frontline security staff has risen from 18 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2017. Frakes has said that a “healthy” turnover rate would be around 16 percent. During the same period, overtime hours and vacant positions at the agency have about doubled.

Corrections has been on a continual cycle of recruiting and training new recruits — about $8,000 per recruit — only to see many of them leave in the first year. Staff work many hours of overtime, often being ordered to do so, which can hurt morale and contribute to burnout.

Frakes told the committee that a staff member can work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Corrections has been unable to reduce turnover due to Nebraska’s tight labor market, better pay at other agencies, and bad publicity from prison disturbances and assaults on staff.

New salary and bonus initiatives, unveiled in October, have not been in place long enough to determine whether they’ll reduce overtime, Frakes said.

Those initiatives, which included $2,500 signing bonuses for new corporals at the Tecumseh State Prison, will provide a “pilot” project to determine if more needs to be done to attack the staffing problems, the corrections director said.

Legislative Bill 871, introduced by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, would direct the Department of Corrections to implement a longevity pay program in hopes of keeping experienced correctional officers on the job.

But Frakes said that public employees have the right to bargain for their wages and that creating a longevity pay program is not something that can be accomplished by the Legislature.

Appropriations Chairman John Stinner said it’s been an ongoing saga of problems at corrections.

“I’m concerned that we’re in a situation that’s maybe not fixable,” he said.