Big Raises, with Conditions, Offered for Prison Staffing Crisis

Oct. 13, 2021, midnight ·

Corrections Director Scott Frakes seated with his hands up in front of him with three people in the background.
Corrections Director Scott Frakes testifies Wednesday. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

The state of Nebraska is offering some prison workers raises of 25 to 35 percent to try and deal with staffing shortages. But it comes with conditions, and some say it may not solve the problem.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes discussed the proposal at a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on prison staff shortages. Frakes referred to raises of 20 to 30 percent contained in a recent agreement with the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, which represents some prison employees.

“I have over 39 years of state service. I have never seen compensation increases like these,” Frakes said.

Frakes said those increases will cost more than $40 million. And he said it would cost another $15 million for the 25-35 percent increases being offered to members of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents security personnel in the prisons. Mike Chipman of the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, said the offer from the state allows for those raises to be taken back if certain goals for retaining employees are not met.

“That’s horrible,” said Sen. Terrell McKinney.

“Yeah. And we will never agree to anything like that. I can assure you of that,” Chipman said.

Frakes estimated that there are 425 to 430 vacancies among the 1,300 staff that are supposed to be in protective positions. Several of the state’s prisons have moved to 12 hour shifts, and allow inmates to move around for things like attending classes only four days a week, and be essentially locked in their cells for three days a week.

“If this continues for much longer, I don’t see how something bad probably doesn’t happen,” McKinney said.

“Senator, I don’t like it either. But at this point in time it’s the best arrangement that ensures that we get people the services they need, and allows for the amount of movement needed to deliver those services with the staff that we have available,” Frakes replied.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks speculated that privatizing the prisons might be the end game.

“I am very concerned that the whole goal is let it all fail, and then we say ‘Private facilities, you must come in and take over this.’ We lose all ability of oversight from the Legislature,” Pansing Brooks said.

Frakes said he opposes privatization. “As society, we made the decision that we would use incarceration as a way to deal with people who violate our laws. We can’t abdicate that responsibility and that authority by turning it over to a profit-making organization,” he said.

Several senators said the situation shows the state should not build a new prison, as Gov. Pete Ricketts has proposed, since it can’t staff the existing ones. Frakes said the state needs to solve both the staffing crisis and overcrowding.

McKinney talked about alternatives. “We need sentencing reform. We need parole reform. We need to make sure we decrease the amount of people that are coming inside” for the system to work,” he said.

Sen. Suzanne Geist said other states are also having problems with their prisons.

“I don’t want to minimize the problem. But I also think we need to be fair and say this is not just a Nebraska problem. This is a country problem. I contend it’s a cultural problem,” Geist said.