Frakes, appointed by Gov. Ricketts to turn around troubled Nebraska prison system, is leaving

Prison chief steps down as state prepares to move on building a new prison

By: - September 1, 2022 5:00 pm
Scott Frakes

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Scott Frakes, handpicked by Gov. Pete Ricketts to turn around a troubled state prison system, has announced that he’s leaving his $255,000-a-year post in October.

Frakes, who is now 64, was hired shortly after Ricketts took office in 2015.

At the time, the Nebraska Department of Corrections was reeling from multiple problems, including prison overcrowding, high turnover of corrections staff and the mistaken, early release of some inmates due to inaccurately calculated sentences.

From Washington State

Frakes, who came to Nebraska from the State of Washington’s prison system, worked to correct the sentence calculation problems and reform the state’s use of solitary confinement for inmates.

While some have criticized Frakes and the Ricketts administration for moving too slowly in addressing Nebraska’s prison overcrowding, which ranks No. 1 in the nation, the director has moved on prison expansion projects in Lincoln and put in motion a $270 million proposal to build a 1,500-bed prison to replace the aging State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

maximum security cells
A maximum security wing is part of a new, 384-bed, prison addition being added in Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Most recently, significant salary increases were granted to corrections staff to ease staffing shortages at state prisons in Lincoln and Tecumseh and to help the prison system better compete for workers in Nebraska’s tight labor market. Despite hiring dozens of new workers, staffing emergencies — to permit longer work shifts and restrict inmate activities — remain at two prisons.

The state is about to open a 384-bed addition to the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln to house the state’s most difficult inmates and those suffering from mental illnesses.

‘Highly effective leader’

“I am proud of the many accomplishments the agency has achieved during my tenure,” Frakes said in a press release Thursday. “Seeing those things come to fruition, to the benefit of staff members and our inmate population, has been enormously satisfying.”

Gary Young, the Lincoln attorney who represents the union for state corrections security employees, said he was always impressed with Frakes in how he dealt with a very difficult job.

“I don’t know anyone who had to confront more alligators from so many directions as he did,” Young said.

Ricketts described Frakes as a “highly effective leader” who had advanced major capital construction projects, dramatically grown the corrections workforce and “guided the agency through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.”

His accomplishments include automating the sentencing calculation function, raising salaries and improving working conditions for corrections staff and merging two Lincoln correctional facilities into the Reception and Treatment Center to create efficiencies.

The state prison system’s recidivism rate — the percentage of inmates who commit repeat crimes within three years — has fallen in the past three years to 29.8%, and staff turnover is projected to drop to 16% this year from a high of 30%.

Two deadly riots

Besides the COVID-19 pandemic, Frakes faced two other emergencies: deadly riots at the Tecumseh State Prison in 2015 and 2017 that left housing units scorched and four inmates dead.

It was not clear whether Frakes is retiring or just leaving the Nebraska job. He has a 40-year career in corrections, mostly in the State of Washington.

Ricketts, who is leaving office in January due to term limits, also announced Thursday that State Fire Marshal Chris Cantrell will be leaving his job in October.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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