Listen: Frakes discusses his time as Nebraska corrections director

Sept. 21, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

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)

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The head of Nebraska’s prison system, Scott Frakes, is leaving next month, after nearly eight years on the job. Fred Knapp of Nebraska Public Media News sat down with him recently to ask about some of the problemsand progress Frakes has seen in the prison system. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

When Scott Frakes came to Nebraska in 2015, Nebraska’s prisons were in turmoil. The system was overcrowded, and prisoners had been released earlier than their sentences allowed. Staff morale was low, turnover was high. During Frakes first seven years, the inspector general for corrections says, the total full time employees in the Department of Correctional Services dropped more than 15 percent.

In a special legislative hearing last year, prison staff testified about the dangers of understaffing. Among them was Jeff Seeley, a lieutenant at the state prison in Tecumseh.

“It's dangerous. It's scary. And I routinely put people into positions where they end up being assaulted…I worry I’m going to post somebody to a position and that might be their last day. Time and time again throughout history, increases in overcrowding and decreases in staff have always led to violence. Have always led to death. And we have to do something about it,” Seeley said.

After years of tension on the issue, there was a breakthrough. Last July, the state and the union representing prison security workers signed a new contract containing significant pay increases. In our interview in his office, I asked Frakes about that.

Fred Knapp: On staffing, you had these big pay raises up to 40% this past year. And that appears to have made big inroads into your problems. Is that right?

Scott Frakes: Yes. Incredible progress. With over we've hired over 600 staff since January, and the protective services numbers are. I don't want to give a wrong number. So we've, we were at roughly 440 custody or protective services vacancies at December 1 of last year. And today we're sitting at about 130.

Knapp: But that was such a long standing problem. Why not do that four or five years earlier?

Frakes: Well, it's complicated. First of all, it's expensive. And all the competing demands for dollars. We tried a lot of strategies. And then as we saw that great resignation, that's when things really went sideways, so quickly. So from March 2021, through September of 2021, we saw the highest turnover that we'd ever seen in this agency. And that really elevated things to a point of where we knew something drastic had to happen.

Knapp: So I've seen a chart of turnover, and it looks like it's way down this calendar year. But is that temporary? Is that a sugar high from the pay increase? And has the culture changed significantly? I mean, there were there was that hearing where people described all sorts of horror stories.

Frakes: Well, you can never rest on your laurels, that's for sure. So compensation and bringing people in the door is certainly part of the solution, but not the long term solution. It's always about been about what do we do different to retain staff, we knew that mandatory overtime was always a contributing problem. And mandatory overtime has almost been eliminated.

Another thing that happened during Frakes’ time in Nebraska was the 2018 execution of convicted murderer Carey Dean Moore. It was Nebraska’s first execution in more than 20 years, and the first by lethal injection. When I asked Frakes about the death penalty, he expanded on the question:

Knapp: What are your thoughts about the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent?

Frakes: Fred, I'm trying to think of anybody's asked me that specific question. Let's be realistic about crime and punishment in general. If criminal sanctions are an effective deterrent, no matter what they are, we should have a whole lot less people in our jails and prisons. But unfortunately, there's a disconnect between the cause and effect. Are the people that believe they can get away with it. They're the people that in the heat of the moment believe it doesn't matter. It's worth it. And then, of course, there are the people that fill our jails and prisons and then realize, oops, that probably wasn't a good decision. So I'm not sure that any of the sanctions that we use have significant – they help keep honest people honest, I’ve said that for a long time, that's the same thing about locks on doors. They keep honest people honest.”

I asked Frakes about disappointments – things he would have done differently. He said he works really hard not to have regrets. But he did mention one thing.

Frakes: I would have been even more satisfied with the overall ending results if I'd have been able to get the new penitentiary in motion to a greater degree. I feel like the project is in motion. So I'm not unhappy. Just I would love to be knowing that we were breaking ground here in a couple months instead of probably a year from now things go as I hope.”

Knapp: The Legislature has set aside money for a 1,500-bed new prison Frakes proposed. But it hasn’t given final approval to building it.

I asked Frakes, who’s 64, about his personal future now that he’s heading back to his native Washington state.

Frakes: Well, after I get done, sitting in a lawn chair in the ocean and throwing rocks into it, because that's what I've told my wife for six years, that was the first thing I was going to do, so I have to go do it. And that may last she says, 15 minutes, I might make it 30. Because I don't think I'm going to run out of rocks or fill up the ocean.”

Knapp: After that, he’s got a list including visiting friends and family, travel, and working in his shop.

Frakes: And then, you know…I need to figure out what will feed my soul at the point that I've done all the list of things, you know, because I do plan to live for a while.

You can hear more of Frakes' thoughts about a new prison, and where things stand on the project, by listening below.