Nebraska corrections director unveils new prison reform plan

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s corrections director unveiled a plan Wednesday to ease some overcrowding in state prisons while creating benchmarks designed to show whether the problem-plagued agency is improving.

Director Scott Frakes said the department will request from the Legislature an estimated $26.2 million for additional beds at community corrections centers in Lincoln and Omaha.

The funding request, which could be complicated by a funding shortfall lawmakers also have to address next year, would cover a net increase of 48 female beds and 100 male beds. It would also allow the department to place male and female inmates in separate buildings.

Under the plan, all female inmates would be housed at a 160-bed center in Lincoln. Males would reside at the center in Omaha, with a total of 400 beds. The community corrections centers are designed for lower-security inmates, with programs focused on counseling, treatment and work release.

Frakes said separating male and female inmates would help address challenges in treating the women, who he said tend to suffer more from abuse and mental health problems.

Department officials will also start looking at specific measurements of the agency’s performance, such as staff vacancy and prisoner recidivism rates.

The plan was released as a legislative oversight committee began three days of hearings to look at various scandals within Nebraska’s prison system. Frakes was scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday.

The department has faced repeated problems in recent years, from miscalculated prison sentences to a riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution that left two inmates dead. Prison officials were heavily criticized for their handling of Nikko Jenkins, an inmate who killed four people in Omaha after he was released despite his pleas for a mental health civil commitment.

The prisons have also faced overcrowding and staffing issues that required more overtime, leading to high rates of burnout. Union officials have complained that the department stopped giving pay increases for longevity several years ago, which eliminated a key tool for retaining workers.

Frakes said the department will change how it classifies inmates, which could result in more prisoners gaining access to rehabilitation programs because they’re considered less of a security risk. Under the current system, he said, inmates are sometimes classified based on the availability of beds rather than a prisoner’s risk level.

Changing how inmates are classified “can mean better opportunities for people to demonstrate that they’re taking advantage of the things we can offer them,” Frakes said.

The first legislative hearing focused on a recent state audit that found financial problems in the department due to poor oversight and communication.

The report said the Department of Correctional Services paid nearly 59,000 hours of unnecessary overtime between July 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2014, totaling more than $1 million. It also faulted the department for overpaying nearly $370,000 because it lacked procedures to ensure that inmate medical claims from off-site providers were proper.

The report said the problems began before Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed Frakes to the job in January.

“There’s a lot of work to do, a lot of the culture that needs to be changed,” Auditor Charlie Janssen said in testimony to the committee.

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