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Office of Governor Pete Ricketts

Corrections Reform Continues

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Over the past few years, you’ve read a lot about the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS).  From sentencing miscalculations to population issues to staffing challenges, the agency has faced numerous hurdles. 

Since taking office a year and a half ago, my administration has prioritized Corrections reform because the work of the agency is key to protecting public safety.  A national search in partnership with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce helped us recruit Scott Frakes, who has been leading reform efforts over the past 18 months.  Together, we have been working to automate prison sentencing calculations, successfully advocated for expanding existing facilities, and produced culture and staffing studies which are informing additional initiatives.

Building and retaining a quality team is key to making the agency’s reform efforts successful.  Every week, over 2000 hardworking men and women at Corrections labor tirelessly to protect public safety.  They work in an environment that is often dangerous, unpredictable, and exhausting.  The recent rise in inmate violence against staff has only compounded the complexity of their work.

Two weeks ago, I met with some of our team members who had recently been assaulted by inmates to hear directly from them about how we can improve the culture of Corrections.  From an officer in their first year to a third generation NDCS team member, they represented a broad range of our workforce.  They spoke honestly about the challenges they face every day.  Our Corrections professionals care about staff security.  They see many of their coworkers leaving.  They want upper management to listen to their concerns and feedback.  They want to support commonsense reforms in our Corrections system.    

Our staff’s wellbeing is an immediate concern, and we have taken actions to improve security.  Earlier this summer, Director Frakes ordered a system wide audit of Corrections facilities to identify security concerns, and steps are being taken to address weaknesses.  Corrections is also taking proactive steps to prevent inmate assaults.  This last week, Corrections locked down the prison in Tecumseh after intelligence showed inmates planning to cause harm to our employees.  Additionally, I have asked Director Frakes and his leadership team to look at how the agency manages inmates who harm staff.  We do not tolerate violence against our Corrections officers.

Retaining a workforce committed to the mission of Corrections, like the team members I met with, is a top priority as we push forward with reform in the agency.   That’s why last week my administration delivered a bona fide offer on wages for Corrections to the state employee union a month early.  Right now, pay for several classes of Corrections employees lags.  This proposal includes raises that are up to four and a half times the raises in the last contract for our most critical Corrections personnel.  It is a significant investment in our Corrections workforce, and a serious step towards addressing staffing and retention.

Compensation and security are just two pieces of the puzzle.  During a recent meeting with Corrections leadership, I urged management to look for additional ways to listen to their team members on a regular basis.  Director Frakes has been working to integrate feedback from his team members.  That’s why he asked for the culture study that he released earlier this year.  The study has served as the basis for several initiatives he is launching, including conducting the security audit mentioned above, looking at alternative shifts with an emphasis on improving quality of life, and piloting the creation of a new shift sergeant position to help better manage frontline staff.  While the culture study was a great first step in listening, the agency is working on ways to build a culture where feedback is welcome and integrated.

As Corrections reform continues, it’s important not to lose sight of the progress that has been made.  The challenges at Corrections weren’t created overnight, and cultural change in the agency won’t happen overnight either.  Director Frakes and I are committed to reform, and we value the support of the numerous partners, including the Legislature and LR34 Committee, who have worked hard to prioritize reform.  If you have any feedback on Corrections or on any other topic, I hope you will contact my office by emailing pete.ricketts@nebraska.gov or by calling 402-471-2244.