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Nebraska prison pay bumps credited for easing staff shortage

March 7, 2022 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s push to increase pay for front-line prison staffers appears to have eased some of the chronic shortages that have caused problems in the corrections department, state officials said Monday.

Officials including Gov. Pete Ricketts said raises approved in a November union agreement have nearly tripled the number of weekly job applications to the corrections department, from 34 to 96. The number of vacancies in the agency has fallen by more than half, from 427 to 206.

“It’s had tremendous success,” Ricketts, a Republican, said at a news conference.

Nebraska’s prison system has struggled with worker shortages for years, a problem that worsened during the pandemic and even raised security concerns.

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The deal between state officials and the state correctional workers’ union provided an $8-an-hour raise for staffers and double-time pay for overtime.

Mike Chapman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the workers, called the agreement “game-changing” when it was announced in November. Under the new contract, new corporals in the prison system start at $28 an hour.

Jason Jackson, director of the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, said state officials have worked collaboratively with the union. Jackson said “compensation has been a big part of our recent success,” and the state is also advertising its jobs and working to recruit residents from out of state.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said he expects to see a “significant downturn” in overtime by April 1, as more new hires complete their training and enter the system.

Frakes acknowledged, however, that the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Tecumseh and the state’s Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln are still operating under abnormal schedules to accommodate severe worker shortages.

The facilities are now running regular 12-hour shifts Monday through Thursday and heavily restricting inmate movement on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Frakes said it’s his goal to create a consistent 7-day-a-week schedule as staffing levels rise.

Frakes said the pay increases have helped his department recruit employees from 33 other states, including some with law enforcement and military experience. He said about 50 of the new hires are previous employees who returned to the agency.

The corrections department has also partnered with Peru State College in southeastern Nebraska to give firsthand experience to students who are studying criminal justice, in hopes they will join the agency after they graduate.

Nebraska lawmakers are expected to debate more prison issues in the coming weeks as they decide whether to approve $270 million for a new state prison. Ricketts has said the project is critical to replace the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, but some state senators aren’t convinced of the need.

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