Frakes Discusses Prison Problems, Prospects in North Omaha

3 Nov 2021, midnight ·

Corrections Director Scott Frakes addresses north Omaha townhall Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Corrections Director Scott Frakes addresses north Omaha townhall Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes addressed a polite but skeptical townhall audience in north Omaha Tuesday about problems and prospects in Nebraska’s prison system.

Frakes was a few minutes late to the meeting, and as he walked in, master of ceremonies Preston Love Jr. joked about the situation.

“I don’t like Scott Frakes. I hope he doesn’t come. And I just -- oh, wait a minute. There he is,” Love said, as the crowd laughed. “C’mon in Scott, have a seat anywhere. Give him a hand for coming,” Love continued, as the crowd applauded.

But the next hour, as Frakes spoke and answered questions about the state’s prison system, was no laughing matter. After thanking his hosts for the opportunity, Frakes quickly launched into a pitch to the community to help solve what he called the prison system’s staffing crisis.

“I got about a hundred jobs here in Omaha that I want to fill, and I want to fill soon. And they are good opportunities,” Frakes said.

Frakes said his department has recently negotiated major pay increases for 40 percent of its employees, and is on the verge of doing so for the remaining staff members.

“I have high hopes that we’re going to see a good increase in our retention of people. And that people are going to take another look and go, ‘Hmm. A job that starts at 30 bucks an hour that requires a high school diploma and just some reasonable skills,’ and we’ll provide the training and we’ll provide all the pieces you need to become successful. That’s pretty competitive. That is a single wage-earner family living wage without a doubt. Sixty, sixty five thousand dollars a year. So. More to come, please watch the announcements and spread the word,” he said.

One woman in the audience said many young black men who had committed no crimes were nevertheless denied consideration for hiring because they had been placed on a list of gang members, based on interacting with one police officer.

“So it’s very subjective as to who lands on that list. And it affects this community in particular in very large numbers,” she said.

“Agreed,” said Frakes. “That’s why we work very hard to not just go off of some assumptions or inadequate information. But if there is some evidence or intel to support that there is an issue, then we go out to work and validate -- or invalidate -- that information.”

Frakes said one of the things the department looks for is tattoos that could cause problems if the person went to work in the prisons.

Another audience member questioned whether the department is doing enough to make sure prisoners it holds don’t come back into the system once they’re released.

“What are we doing, educational-wise, training-wise, so they won’t come back? So they can build themselves up, so when they once get out they’re not always returning, because they’ve learned a skill. They can have gainful employment. They can feed their families?” she asked.

Frakes said the system spends a lot on education. But he acknowledged because of staff shortages, some prisoners are locked down part of the time and can’t get to the classes they need.

“I hate where we’re at right now. (The) Flip side is historic pay raises and some other compensation pieces that are coming alive right now, I’m hoping, hoping that that’s going to be part of what helps us move us in the right direction and get us back to where we want to be,” he said.

Yet another question concerned Frakes’ and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to build a new prison costing almost a quarter billion dollars. With black Nebraskans incarcerated at about five times their proportion of the state’s population, the questioner said that would have a disproportionate impact on the black community.

“Why not take that money and put it into the community where you can create programs and job opportunities to keep people out of prison, and not make them comfortable while they’re in prison?” she asked.

“That needs to happen. We need to continue to put more money into community mental health because we did not do – as a society we have not done a good job there. That has to happen,” Frakes said.

However, he maintained the state still needs to build a new prison to replace the aging state penitentiary and provide the kind of space needed for rehabilitative programs.