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Despite salary hikes, staffing issues remain at Nebraska prisons, report says

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Despite salary hikes, staffing issues remain at Nebraska prisons, report says

Sep 18, 2023 | 7:41 pm ET
By Paul Hammel
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Despite salary hikes, staffing issues remain at Nebraska prisons, report says
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Staff shortages at the state Reception and Treatment Center on the western edge of Lincoln drew concerns in a recent annual report to the Nebraska Legislature. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Staffing issues remain at the state’s prison system despite hiring bonuses and a steep increase in pay, an annual report released Monday said.

While vacancies and turnover of corrections officers and corporals have improved since peaking in recent years, increases in the two categories drew concerns from a watchdog office appointed by the Nebraska Legislature due to problems in state prisons.

There’s more work to be done, according to the annual report from Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick.

Retention ‘critical’

“Retention must be a critical focus going forward, particularly as other states and agencies raise their own correctional salaries,” said the report.

A state Corrections spokeswoman said that staff vacancies are about half what they were in 2021, despite the slight increase in recent months.

“There is some up and down movement with that number based on team member movements internally and externally and our hiring,” said Deputy Director Dawn Renee Smith.

Two years ago, a significant increase in pay for starting corrections officers was granted, pushing the beginning pay for a corporal to $28 an hour. Since then, however, county jails in Douglas and Lancaster Counties have responded by hiking their starting salaries to $30 per hour and $28.64 per hour, respectively.

Statistics provided by the IG’s Office showed that annual job turnover of protective services positions, which peaked at 450 in 2017, increased from 268 in 2022 to a projected 295 in 2023. In addition, job vacancies in the ranks of corrections officers, corporals and sergeants have risen from 359 in March to 377 in June after peaking at 527 two years ago.

Koebernick said the staffing issues appear most troublesome at the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln, a prison that was merged a couple of years ago after operating as the separate Lincoln Correctional Center and Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

‘Very worried’ at RTC

Workers at that merged prison, he said, shared many specific examples of “how the shortage of staff has made them feel unsafe and less secure during 2023.”

“They’re very worried about the facility,” Koebernick said.

The same report stated that bonuses granted to new employees — a strategy employed to boost recruiting — had ended earlier this year with mixed results.

For instance, 31% of new protective service staff offered a $10,000 hiring bonuses at selected prisons were still on the job after four years. Of those offered a $15,000 bonus — which was first offered two years ago — 61% were still employed.

Koebernick said the department should evaluate how effective the bonuses have been, and if they haven’t been effective enough, what other strategies could be used.

The department recently reported that overall staff turnover in 2022 was 16%, down from more than 25% a couple of years ago.

Staffing issues involve more than prison security staff, the report indicated.

Overtime expenses high

More than half of the nursing jobs at state prisons are unfilled, and 65% of psychologists’ jobs are vacant. In addition, a new medical director for the Nebraska prison system has not been hired, seven months after the previous director, Dr. Harbans Deol, left.

Koebernick said that position is one of the five more important in the agency. It is also one of the most highly paid jobs, paying just under $309,000 a year in 2022, according to OpentheBooks.com.

Smith said an acting medical director is on the job as the department works with a recruiting firm to fill the position.

prison overtime
Overtime expenses at Nebraska prisons have risen steadily in the past 15 years, reflecting a shortage of staff to fill required posts. (Courtesy of the Inspector General for Corrections)

One outgrowth of the shortage of staff has been an increase in expenses for overtime, to fill vacant slots.

The state spent $21.8 million on overtime at Corrections in fiscal year ’21-’22, a slight decrease from the year before but more than three times the overtime expenses in 2013.

Overtime paid to individual corrections officers and corporals increased significantly in the past year after a new union contract called for double pay for working extra hours, the report said.

The department’s top 30 overtime earners were paid between $58,510 and $128,880 each in overtime pay, over and above their annual salaries, the report said.

New director ‘hands on’

Koebernick said he is encouraged by some steps being taken by the new state corrections director, Rob Jeffreys, who was hired in April by Gov. Jim Pillen.

Jeffreys, Koebernick said, appears focused on reducing excessive use of solitary confinement of inmates, a practice that can exacerbate mental illnesses.

Koebernick added that Jeffreys has spent a lot more time visiting individual prisons across the state, which has drawn comments from staff and inmates.

“One longtime staffer said he’d seen him more in two months than he saw the previous director (Scott Frakes) in eight years,” Koebernick said. “He’s a hands-on guy, and that will help the system going forward.”