LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska's largest prison faces "alarming" conditions driven by staffing shortages, record overtime and inmates who are secretly using synthetic drugs and contraband cellphones, according to the state's watchdog for correctional services.
The state's Inspector General of Corrections Doug Koebernick issued the warning in a memo to lawmakers this week. The eight-page report identified several ongoing problems within the state prison system but singled out the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln as the facility with the most serious issues.
Koebernick said he voiced concerns to Gov. Pete Ricketts' office in a letter last month and later spoke by phone to Nebraska's correctional services director, Scott Frakes.
"I've spent some time talking to individuals connected to the Nebraska State Penitentiary and thought I would share with you that I have some serious concerns about the stability of the facility," Koebernick said in an excerpt of the letter that was included in his report. "The issues raised with me are alarming and that facility may be in the worst shape of all of our facilities."
Nebraska's prison system has faced a litany of problems in recent years, including persistent overcrowding and struggles to hire and retain employees. A different prison in southeast Nebraska was the site of inmate uprisings in 2015 and 2017. Two prisoners were killed in each of those incidents.
In a statement, Frakes said the Department of Correctional Services has taken proactive steps to try to fill jobs, including offering pay increases, signing bonuses and other financial incentives to employees and hosting job fairs to attract more workers.
Frakes said the problems are common at other states' corrections departments and that Nebraska faces a major challenge because of the state's low unemployment, which gives prospective employees the chance to find higher-paying private sector jobs.
"The bottom line is that in an economy where unemployment is low and opportunities abound, it is challenging to fill vacancies," Frakes said. The department "remains committed to ensuring that staffing is maintained at appropriate levels across all facilities, at all times."
The report also warned of the "rather substantial" prevalence of contraband in the penitentiary, including cellphones and the synthetic drug K2, which mimics the effects of marijuana.
Prison officials have identified both as a major security concern. Cellphones allow inmates to communicate illicitly with outsiders and co-ordinate gang activity within the prison, while inmates under the influence of K2 have been known to have wildly unpredictable outbursts.
The report said the number of "protective service" job vacancies at the state penitentiary rose to 77 in June, the highest number in the last two years, despite the correction's department's efforts to hire more employees. The number of unfilled jobs has trended upward during that time.
The amount of overtime worked has reached a record high as well, and Koebernick said much of that increase was driven by the state penitentiary. Employees at the prison worked more than 18,500 hours of overtime in June, up sharply from around 11,100 hours in January 2018.
Much of the overtime is mandatory, which leads to worker burnout and exacerbates the department's struggles to hire and retain quality workers, said state Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. Lathrop said the mandatory overtime makes it nearly impossible for workers to have a balanced family life, and many simply decide to find another job.
Lathrop said the staffing problems contribute to security concerns at the prison, which houses both minimum- and maximum-security inmates.
"It's very concerning," Lathrop said. "We're going in the wrong direction. When we're short-staffed, it's a safety risk for the inmates and the people who are working there."
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