LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska prison workers expressed deep concerns Friday about staff safety, morale and turnover, despite recent efforts to improve conditions in the state corrections department.
Some workers spoke through tears during a legislative hearing, saying they were tired of mandatory overtime and frustrated with what they consider lackluster pay for senior employees.
Their testimony at the Capitol touched on many familiar problems that have dogged the Department of Correctional Services in recent years: high turnover rates, unfilled jobs, prisoner overcrowding and outbursts of inmate violence.
Prison administrators say they’re working to address the issues and improve morale, and recently announced pay incentives aimed at two of the state’s largest prisons. Some lawmakers credited the department as well, saying administrators have made strides in difficult circumstances.
Still, some lawmakers and corrections workers said they’re worried about the atmosphere in prisons that house Nebraska’s most dangerous offenders.
“Inmates see how much we’re being forced to work, and they know we’re tired,” said Cpl. Carla Jorgens, who works at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. “I have been with the department for 20 years, and every day for the last five years, I say to myself, ‘I have never seen it this bad.'”
Jorgens decried the lack of longevity pay for more experienced corrections officers, saying she now makes $1.20 an hour more than a new employee despite her decades of service. She said mandatory overtime often forces employees to choose between family obligations and their jobs.
Sgt. Brad Kreifels of the Nebraska State Penitentiary said inmates became emboldened after lawmakers approved a policy to limit the use of solitary confinement, which he described as a tool staff members use to punish misbehavior.
“It’s going to take someone getting killed for the public to understand our problems,” Kreifels said, adding that many prisoners have a “give an inch, take a mile” mentality.
Kreifels said the mandatory overtime is such a problem that some employees will abandon their posts and refuse to work, only to find themselves locked inside the prison.
Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, whose district includes several state prisons, said she plans to introduce legislation in next year’s session that would raise salaries across the board for correctional workers. Another lawmaker, Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, said she suspects morale problems will remain until a new union contract provides longevity pay for senior workers.
Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said the agency has made progress since he became director two and a half years ago.
Frakes acknowledged that staffing problems have persisted at the Nebraska State Penitentiary and the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, but noted that eight of the department’s 10 facilities have successfully filled vacancies and retained workers.
Earlier this month, Frakes announced that the department will offer $2,500 signing bonuses to the first 100 new employees hired through Nov. 17 to work at the two prisons still facing problems. The department also agreed to pay experience-based merit incentives to staff members at the Tecumseh prison.
Additionally, Frakes noted that some employees recently received raises of 7 percent to 9 percent as the department tried to reduce turnover. Now that some time has passed, “there’s already a loss of memory” about the recent pay hike, he said.
“The agency has accomplished a tremendous amount of work in two and a half years, and none of this could have been achieved without the men and women who staff our facilities,” Frakes said.
Critics say the targeted incentive stoked resentment because it wasn’t offered to all employees.
“Any solutions need to involve all employees at all state correctional institutions,” said John Antonich, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the union that represents prison workers. “This is only a matter of fairness.”
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