Frakes: Prison Employees Must Resist Manipulation by Inmates

Jan. 14, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services gold and black patch with state capitol on it.
Patch worn by state correctional officers in Nebraska.

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Earlier this week, the Nebraska State Patrol arrested an assistant warden accused of a sexual relationship with an inmate at the facility she supervised. The Department of Corrections faces a nagging problem with staff providing illegal contraband and having forbidden contact with prisoners. Recently, Bill Kelly with Nebraska Public Media spoke with Director of Corrections Scott Frakes about similar cases and the challenges of preventing instances when staff have inappropriate contact with prisoners.

The most recent case of prison staff facing criminal charges came before we spoke with Director Frakes late last year. But our conversation did cover a spate of similar cases involving staff providing contraband or engaging in sex with prisoners. He acknowledged it’s a persistent problem in most prison systems.

Scott Frakes, Director, Nebraska Dept of Correctional Services: The best way that we keep people from going down that path is when everyone in this agency is engaged around and understands that they have a role in watching each other, taking care of each other. And when they see things that don't look right, they ask questions, they challenge them.

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

A prison population, Frakes says, will always include those looking to get an advantage or maintain a criminal life behind bars and they will target prison staff they perceive as vulnerable.

Frakes: I guess the bottom line though, is we know that we deal with the population, many of which are highly skilled in manipulating people. Not in the sense that we all manipulate each other, you know, normal human relationships, but manipulating people for outcomes of money, introduction of contraband, intimate behavior, and other things. There's no training that you can give to anyone that will make them bullet proof, so it's got to be a collective effort.

Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News: What are the key pieces of advice you give to new employees to try and bulletproof them against that type of manipulative behavior?

Frakes: We teach them about some of the different manipulation techniques that are used, but there's always new games. That's the thing, it's an ever-evolving art. But it's because the person has become vulnerable, they've had relationship issues, they have financial issues. They have other life struggles that occur and they let their guard down.

So it's also teaching people about how to maintain professional boundaries. How to always question their interactions and their behavior. How to be as aware as possible. And then that last piece is no matter how good you are at it, if you're working closely with other human beings, sooner or later, your guard gets dropped.

CLICK HERE to read Bill Kelly's previous reporting on the failed attempt to prosecute a staff member smuggling drugs.

Last month, Nebraska Public Media reported new details of a similar case from 2019 involving a kitchen worker at the Lincoln penitentiary smuggling drugs while having a relationship with an inmate. In a review of the incident, the state’s Office of the Inspector General listed numerous flaws in how the incident was handled. One example: those involved in the internal intelligence unit not sharing information about the smuggling with investigators or key administrators.

Frakes: There were opportunities very early in this situation for supervisors and/or other managers to intervene and take some action. There were indicators that there were problems, time alone. The staff member, having time alone with a specific inmate, that there was no apparent good reason for.

It elevated to a level then, where now there was a belief that the staff member was in an inappropriate relationship and/or was bringing in contraband. And at that point, the focus then became in catching the staff member, as opposed to doing an intervention, even at that point.

As a result, the kitchen worker apparently continued smuggling drugs into the prison for more than a month.

Frakes: And that's not my philosophy, that's not how I want to do business. I'm much more interested in ensuring that people are safe. The facilities are secure, that we do stop contraband. But when we put all the energy and the focus towards trying to catch people, doing bad things instead of stopping the potential through the bad behavior, that doesn't necessarily give us the best outcomes.

Then we had the issue with the use of a listening device, which if it had been managed correctly, there wouldn't have been an issue.

The listening devices. In addition to other surveillance methods, the intelligence section acquired discrete microphones to eavesdrop on prisoner conversations. According to an unwritten policy authorized by Director Frakes prison staff would not be recorded.

NSP Report excerpt
Excerpt from a 2020 investigative report frotn the Nebraska State Patrol.

Without full approval, the intelligence unit bugged a kitchen storage area to listen in on the kitchen worker and the inmate. There was an arrest, but the staff recording reportedly led to the prosecutor dropping the charges. Frakes claims the Department of Corrections no longer uses technology specifically designed to secretly record conversations.

Kelly: Is there a place for the use of listening devices within a correctional facility, as both a prevention and as an investigative tool?

Frakes: In fact, we have been using that type of listening device for 25 years. So that's not new technology and does have a place, but it has to be used under a set of controls and carefully and thoughtfully.

Kelly: There were not written guidelines for listening devices in place, prior to this. In hindsight, should there have been?

Frakes: Well, if we make the decision to return to using that type of technology, I think we will create some written structure around it. The thought there was to not record information that could be disclosed or become public knowledge which then would minimize its effectiveness.

So, at this point, almost two years, so at least 18 months ago, I said, "Okay, we're just going to stop using them until we decide whether or not there really is value."

While the use of listening devices is on hold, Frakes elected to keep the intelligence units and investigative units separate at each facility. The intelligence chief who mishandled the kitchen worker case left the job. Frakes hopes his replacement will do a better job of responding when prison staff falter in their relationships with inmates.

Text with some sentences highlighted in yellow and others blocked out with a black strip.
Excerpt from a 2020 Nebraska State Patrol Report on the use of listening devices at the state penitentiary.

Concerned with the persistent problem with contraband and staff smuggling illegal goods into the state’s prisons, the inspector general’s report provided a list of recommendations to the Department of Corrections. While Frakes rejected some key suggestions, he now says he’s prepared to upgrade surveillance technology, including body scanners when staff arrive.

Frakes: Well, it was rejected at that moment simply because I wasn't in a position to write a $150,000 check. We had already been working on and did have some sense of what it would cost to do it. It wasn't information that I wanted to share yet. We are in the process of installing one at the new RTC. The downside of it, of course is first of all, the cost, plus it comes with an annual maintenance fee. And then as we become more and more dependent on them, then if you talk about having those in five locations. Now, all of a sudden, you're getting close to a million dollar budget item that you're trying to manage.

Kelly: So that's at one facility. What about Tecumseh and the Nebraska State Penitentiary?

Frakes: Well, we got another budget coming up next year. And I'll be weighing all the different options to see if it's something that we can afford to move forward on.

Kelly: Another recommendation was for an upgrade in security cameras, in video surveillance. There have been a lot of problems with your older systems, in documenting reliability. Even the introduction of high resolution video and the like. Is that in the cards at Tecumseh and Nebraska State Penitentiary?

Frakes: Yes.

Kelly: How soon?

Frakes: Yeah, I can't answer that off the top of my head. Not because I don't want to, but just because I'm not sure. We did a large camera survey project. It's a several million-dollar project overall. And so yeah. Plus, there was ongoing camera improvements that were happening in different locations.

The more technology you bring into a facility, the more challenges you have in terms of maintaining it, keeping it current. If it has any I.T. dependency, which so much of it does, and more and more, it all does. Then that has its own set of problems.