Former Illinois prison chief named to head Nebraska Department of Corrections
Union officials say Jeffreys is a listener; he leaves an agency nearly six times larger
Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen introduced Rob Jeffreys as the next director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections at the State Capitol on Monday. Jeffreys most recently led the Illinois Department of Corrections. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments about the appointment.
LINCOLN — Rob Jeffreys, who departed his job leading the Illinois Department of Corrections three days ago, was introduced Monday as the new chief of the Nebraska prison system.
Jeffreys, who had held the top job in Illinois since June 2019, was “clearly the standout candidate,” said Gov. Jim Pillen, during an afternoon news conference.
Seven other finalists were interviewed for the job, Pillen said, after a nationwide search.
Salary increase over Illinois job
Jeffreys will be paid $210,000 a year. His salary in Illinois was $200,000 a year as of Jan. 1.
In Illinois, Pillen said, Jeffreys made strides in obtaining national accreditation for the prison system, reentry programs and vocational and educational services, as well as guiding the agency through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He is a nationally recognized criminal justice expert,” Pillen said. “I hope that director Jeffreys is as excited to come to Nebraska as I am about him coming.”
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, a key senator on criminal justice issues, said he was optimistic about the hiring of Jeffreys.
“But Nebraska is different from Illinois, so we shall see how it works out,” McKinney said.
Jeffreys will succeed Diane Sabatka-Rine, who had served as interim director of the Nebraska of Corrections since October, when Scott Frakes retired.
Frakes led department since 2015
Frakes had led the Nebraska department since 2015, shortly after then-Gov. Pete Ricketts was elected to his first term. Prior to his departure, Frakles was paid $255,000 a year — one of the highest salaries for a corrections director in the country.
In Illinois, Jeffreys oversaw a department that housed approximately 29,000 inmates in 27 facilities and a $1.6 billion budget. That is considerably larger than the Nebraska’s system, which has about 5,500 inmates at nine prisons.
When asked why he left Illinois, Jeffreys said he had a good discussion with a recruiter about what was needed in Nebraska and was impressed that Pillen “cleared his schedule” to meet with him, even after his flight from Chicago was delayed by several hours.
“We had a great conversation,” he said. “What I heard from that conversation was that here were individuals who were genuinely invested in the humanity of human beings.”
Jeffreys spent 24 years with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction before taking the Illinois job. In Ohio, he served in management for 21 years. His last post there was as chief of staff at Ohio corrections.
Union officials voice enthusiasm
Mike Chipman, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents Nebraska corrections officers, said he has heard that Jeffreys is a good listener who worked cooperatively with union officials in Illinois.
Scot Ward, with Illinois FOP Lodge 263, said that Jeffreys is the most educated prison chief he’s ever worked with. He said he made changes that helped increase the morale of corrections staff after a previous director had officers wearing polo shirts instead of uniforms.
Ward speculated that Jeffreys was ready to leave Illinois because the prison director there has little opportunity to make changes without approval of the governor and his staff.
“I hope he gets the chance to do some great things for Nebraska,” Ward said.
Launched assessment of facilities
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of a nonprofit prison watchdog group in Illinois called the John Howard Association, said her organization didn’t always agree with Jeffreys, but they had a “positive working relationship.”
She said they appreciated that Jeffreys hired a consultant to assess the State of Illinois prison facilities, which includes some aging facilities that she described as “unsafe” and “unfit for human habitation.”
Vollen-Katz said she had no idea why he left Illinois but added, “This is complicated state, with a complicated prison system.”
Wants to ‘put my feet on the ground’
Jeffreys said he wanted to “put my feet on the ground” before saying what changes are needed in Nebraska.
He did say the top three challenges here are no different from those faced nationally by prison systems. Those include providing quality infrastructure, hiring and retaining adequate staff and preparing inmates to be productive citizens.
The recidivism rate in Illinois — the percentage of inmates who reoffend within three years of release — has hovered at around 40% in recent years, among the highest rates in the country. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s rate has declined slightly in the past three years to 29.8% in 2019.
Pillen and Lt. Gov. Joe Kelly, a former U.S. and county prosecutor, said they hoped that progress would continue under Jeffreys.
The state’s prison system has had a longtime problem with overcrowding, and last year, held nearly 1,900 more inmates that it was designed to hold.
Staffing shortages have also plagued the department, though significant salary increases adopted last year have eased that problem.
The Nebraska Legislature is currently debating whether to provide the final funds to build a new, 1,500-bed prison somewhere in eastern Nebraska. Some lawmakers believe that a second new prison will also be needed.
Jeffreys said he was involved in building a prison in Illinois, including the design and hiring staff.
The Appropriations Committee is scheduled to decide later this week whether to include the final funds for the 1,500-bed facility, estimated to cost $270 million.
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