Prisons are often overlooked as part of government, but they play a key role in creating safe communities. For years, Nebraska underinvested in its prisons. During my administration, we have placed a renewed focus on managing them well for one simple reason: we want to keep people safe. To achieve this goal in my administration, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) has focused on improving successful reentry, developing our workforce, and building new prison beds.
Reentry services are critical because over 90 percent of the inmates housed in state prisons will return to the community after they complete their sentences. To prepare inmates to be a positive part of their community upon reentry, NDCS designs and delivers programs to connect inmates with job training and programs to enhance prosocial skills, such as anger management classes. Reentry involves both a responsibility to society to ensure public safety and an opportunity to help an individual successfully make a fresh start in life. Over the past few years, NDCS has changed the way it thinks about reentry. Building a reentry plan now begins when individuals first enter our corrections system, not when they are about to exit it. The agency assesses needs right away, so that we can begin to match inmates with the programming needed to reduce the risk to reoffend. This process gives those who enter NDCS facilities every opportunity to succeed upon release.
As part of our reentry strategy, NDCS has partnered with the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) on a joint venture to provide persons housed at NDCS facilities with a state ID card or driver’s license prior to release. A mobile licensing unit from the DMV regularly visits secure facilities at NDCS to issue the cards. Having a valid ID removes a key barrier to successful reentry by enabling individuals to apply for a job, open a bank account, or secure housing.
The success of our reentry programming depends on having dedicated, highly skilled teammates to secure our facilities. Like many private sector employers, NDCS has faced challenges recruiting new corrections officers due to our state’s low unemployment and competitive labor market. In the past year, we’ve taken a number of steps to recruit and retain top-notch corrections officers. In April, the State announced a new policy to award merit-based raises to teammates at NDCS who have consistently performed with excellence. We also implemented pay raises for teammates on key work anniversary dates in recognition of their valuable experience. Last month, we reached agreement on a new pay plan with the union that represents corrections officers. It raises wages for corrections corporals, unit caseworkers, and sergeants at NDCS. The plan also increases the starting wage for new corrections teammates in these positions.
We’re also building a talent pipeline to attract the next generation of leaders to NDCS. We recently announced a partnership between NDCS and Peru State College that, pending approval from the Legislature, will launch a one-of-a-kind education program to train students to take on key roles at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. The initiative is tailored to students interested in careers in criminal justice with a focus on corrections leadership, and it gives them on-the-job experience as part of their degree plan. It’s exactly the kind of forward-thinking approach we need to prepare for our future workforce needs.
As work on corrections policy continues, we are also managing our prison population. Some members of the Legislature believe that the State of Nebraska should loosen state laws for violent criminals to let them out early. I oppose such changes to our sentencing laws that would threaten public safety.
Instead of softening public safety laws, my team is focused on expanding the capacity of state prisons to manage the inmate population. To do this, my team has focused on leveraging our existing real estate and facilities. During my time in office, I have requested and received $170 million for capital construction projects at NDCS. Last March, NDCS opened a 160-bed living quarters for women—along with new programming space—at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln. In the fall of 2020, NDCS is scheduled to open a 100-bed dormitory at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for those in minimum custody. In addition, a $49-million project is underway at the Lincoln Correctional Center to add 384 high-security beds. As we expand our footprint in corrections, we’re making sure to match the type of beds constructed with our area of greatest need.
As we look to the future of our prisons, it’s important to put public safety first. There are proposals pending in the Legislature that would put the safety of our families and communities at risk. Senators should work to defeat those, and focus on supporting NDCS’ ongoing work to keep people safe. If you have questions about the State’s initiatives to keep Nebraskans safe, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 402-471-2244.