LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s prison system should face renewed scrutiny from lawmakers in the wake of a revolt that left two inmates dead and the murder of another by his cellmate, a state senator said Tuesday.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha urged his colleagues to create an investigative committee to look into a new spate of problems in the Department of Correctional Services. The Legislature’s Executive Board is reviewing the proposal and will decide whether to send it to the full Legislature for debate.
The proposed seven-member committee would examine issues within the department as well as the state’s parole, probation and criminal justice agencies. It also would have subpoena power, giving lawmakers the power to compel a witness to testify. Lawmakers have created similar committees in the past but all have been dissolved.
“This really is designed to look at what’s happening operationally within our institutions,” said Krist, who is considering a primary run to challenge Gov. Pete Ricketts, a fellow Republican. “Why are we having so many problems? Why are we having so many deaths?”
Authorities say 39-year-old Patrick Schroeder killed his cellmate, 22-year-old Terry Berry, at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in April. An autopsy found that Berry was strangled.
The southeastern Nebraska prison has a history of deadly violence, including an inmate uprising in March that left eft two inmates dead. Two others killed in a May 2015 riot at the prison that caused more than $2 million in damage.
Mike Marvin, the executive director of Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said the department has made “little to no progress” under corrections director Scott Frakes. Frakes was appointed in February 2015 promising to bring a “culture change” to the problem-plagued corrections system.
Marvin said the prisons remain overcrowded and are still using overtime to compensate for staffing shortages. The shortages are largely driven by a lack of seniority pay, he said.
Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer, an Executive Board member, said recent efforts to safely release more inmates from prison have worked, but more prisoners are arriving.
“Something has happened within society that has increased those numbers,” which isn’t the corrections director’s fault, Scheer said.
Frakes said more oversight wasn’t necessary. He pointed to the recently created inspector general for corrections, a watchdog position that answers to the Legislature, and other steps lawmakers have taken in recent years.
He also defended his work and pointed to changes the department and lawmakers have made over the last few years.
He said the department has hired a full-time recruitment staffer and taken steps to try to reduce employee turnover rates, but noted that his agency is competing with higher-paying private sector jobs in a state with one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates.
Despite intense questioning from Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, Frakes declined to say whether he had reneged on an agreement with the state employees’ union to return to normal staffing hours at the Tecumseh prison. Many staff members have had to work longer shifts for safety in the wake of the riots.
Chambers said Frakes, who answers to Ricketts, shouldn’t have a say in how lawmakers decide to proceed.
“I think what you’ve shown is exactly why this committee needs to be formed,” he said.
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