LINCOLN — For the first time since 2010, staff turnover declined at state prisons in 2018, but Gov. Pete Ricketts and prison officials said more work needs to be done.
“It’s not down where we want it to be, but we are making progress,” the governor said Monday in comments to reporters.
Officials with the union that represents corrections employees questioned how much improvement had actually occurred, particularly at the Tecumseh State Prison, which has had the state’s worst staffing problems.
“I don’t know how they get their numbers,” said Mike Chipman, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88. “The union does not feel that any real improvement has happened.”
On Sunday, the Nebraska Department of Corrections announced that agencywide staff turnover was 24 percent during the past year and turnover of protective services staff was 31 percent.
Agencywide turnover was almost 28 percent in 2017. Turnover of the protective service workers — corrections officers, corporals, sergeants and caseworkers — had been rising steadily since 2010, topping out at 34 percent in 2017.
The high turnover has caused training costs to rise and record overtime expenses, and raised concerns about tired and overworked staff.
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said that “reversing course” on that trend has been a top priority since he was hired four years ago but that 24 percent turnover is still about twice as high as is ideal.
He attributed the decrease in turnover to pay increases with additional raises for certain jobs, bonuses for referrals, commuting and training, and a major push for staff safety, which led to an 87 percent reduction in assaults on staff that resulted in serious injury.
“We need to celebrate our progress and double down on our efforts in 2019,” Frakes said in a press release, while commending the dedication of his employees.
But Chipman questioned the figures.
He said that during recent bargaining sessions with the state, the union was told that 70 employees quit or were fired by the agency in September and October alone. At the Tecumseh prison, a rural prison about 70 miles southwest of Omaha, Chipman said union members counted 110 workers who quit in 2018, which represents about half of the staff.
A corrections spokeswoman, Laura Strimple, said turnover at the medium-maximum-security Tecumseh facility was about 26 percent in 2018 — a dramatic decline. At the minimum-security Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, turnover was only 10 percent.
But protection staff turnover at the Omaha Correctional Center was at a state high of 48 percent.
That is partly because about 50 corrections officers from the Omaha facility are driven by van every day to the Tecumseh prison to fill empty posts there. Those workers are not counted as Tecumseh employees, which probably helped lower the turnover rate at Tecumseh.
Nebraska has struggled with prison problems over the past few years. The state has the second-most-overcrowded prison system in the country, which has prompted a civil rights lawsuit by the ACLU of Nebraska. Tecumseh has had two deadly riots since 2015.
Corrections officers complain about working two to three 16-hour shifts a week to cover open posts at some prisons.
The Fraternal Order of Police and the state are currently negotiating a new contract but have reportedly not been able to strike a deal.
One sticking point is providing “step-increase” raises based on years of service for corrections staff, which the union says is key to retaining experienced workers. Ricketts, on Monday, reiterated his view that raises should be based on merit, not simply on years of service.
» On Monday, State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln introduced Legislative Bill 238, which would require two state lawmakers to witness executions and would block prison officials from pulling the curtain of the execution chamber until the condemned inmate is pronounced dead.
Moore was pronounced dead while the curtains were drawn, which prompted some to question whether the witnesses actually observed the entire execution.