Prison system touts drop in staff turnover, while lack of medical workers remains a concern

Salary hikes and bonuses among steps taken to fill vacant posts

By: - September 27, 2022 5:31 pm
prison

The state Reception and Treatment Center on the western edge of Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Department of Corrections, long plagued by high turnover among protective services staff, is now projecting that the turnover rate among guards will be cut nearly in half.

In a press release Tuesday, Corrections said it expects the turnover rate among custody staff — the officers and caseworkers who deal directly with inmates — to be around 18% by the end of the year.

That would compare with a 34% turnover rate in 2018. In June 2021, the agency topped out at 527 staff vacancies.

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

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the 18% mark would be lowest turnover rate of custody staff in more than a decade.

Hiring has improved since mid-contract pay raises were instituted in November, which raised starting salaries for corporals and caseworkers from $20 an hour to $28 an hour to keep pace with county jail salaries.

Raises and hiring bonuses

The agency is also offering hiring bonuses of up to $15,000 for security staff, and bonuses for new nurses and food service workers.

“We are encouraged by the continued interest from those who are relocating from other states,” Frakes said. “Our training classes continue to include high numbers of individuals with prior law enforcement, corrections and military backgrounds, which suits our needs very well.”

Despite the improvement in hiring of security staff, worries remain about a shortage of medical and mental health providers at state prisons, and whether the hiring gains can be sustained.

Overtime costs still high

A recent annual report by the Inspector General for Corrections Office noted that two large prisons, the Tecumseh State Prison and the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln, remain under staffing emergencies and have restrictions on inmate activities.

The report also stated that overtime costs — to fill vacant posts with existing staff — remain high, at about $22 million during the past year. One employee, the report said, earned nearly $126,000 in overtime pay during 2021.

While job vacancies declined among security staff, they increased among medical and behavioral health staff, which the Inspector General’s report called “deeply concerning.”

Vacancies among nurses, dentists

Almost 40% of health services jobs were vacant in June, the report stated, and vacancies among mental health staff have nearly tripled in three years.

Laura Strimple, a Corrections spokeswoman, said the agency suffers from the same challenges as other employers in dealing with a shortage of health care workers.

According to Corrections, 675 employees have been hired since December, including 576 who are in protective service positions. Among the new hires are 270 from 39 states other than Nebraska.

Inmate restrictions to ease

The increase in staffing, the department said, will allow inmate restrictions to be decreased to two days a week at Tecumseh and the RTC, from the current three days a week. Frakes said as more staff comes on line, the inmate restrictions will be dropped further.

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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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