By Governor Pete Ricketts
A deadly incident at the state’s maximum-security prison in Tecumseh last week has once again put a public focus on the important work of reforming the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS). In my first two years as governor, corrections reform has been a top priority to ensure we are protecting public safety. Working with the Legislature and courts, we have begun to address challenges with our prison population, successfully lobbied for additional investments, improved staffing and recruitment, expanded programming opportunities and assessed security needs.
One of the first areas we worked to address during my first legislative session as governor is our prison population. Nebraska’s prisons have been full for decades. Governors and Legislatures since at least the 1980s have worked to address this challenge. In 2015, the Legislature made changes to the states’ sentencing laws to better utilize parole and supervised release for nonviolent criminals. Instead of growing, the state’s prison population has started to decline, falling from 5,392 in May 2015 to 5,236 last month as changes take effect.
In the last two years, NDCS Director Scott Frakes and I have successfully worked with the Legislature to secure new investments in NDCS. In 2015, we worked with the Legislature to secure an additional $37 million over two years for the agency to improve operations, hire additional behavioral health staff and expand security staffing. In 2016, the Legislature and I agreed upon an additional $26 million to expand existing prison facilities, which will allow for the addition of 148 more beds as well as much-needed programming space.
While the $26 million expansion is built, NDCS is working in other areas to improve their facilities. A 100-bed temporary unit will help alleviate stress on our system while the expansion is under construction. Director Frakes has been working to establish mission-specific housing, and is advocating for another $75 million investment in housing to help deliver better programming for elderly inmates and those with behavioral health needs.
Last summer, Director Frakes and the Council of State Governments unveiled an analysis of programming in NDCS facilities. Good news: Our corrections system provides quality programming. The final analysis recommended re-sequencing existing programming and better utilizing staff to deliver programming. Additionally, my administration has worked with nonprofits to expand privately funded programming opportunities including a new program to develop entrepreneurial skills as well as faith-based programs.
Recruitment and retention of staffing has also been a focus for Director Frakes. Last year, the Legislature provided $1.5 million to assist the agency with developing new retention strategies, which include paying bonuses and work-life balance initiatives. Director Frakes and I have advocated for moving to 12-hour shifts for corrections officers. Additionally, Director Frakes and I have worked to improve employee pay by negotiating pay raises with the state’s labor union for our corrections officers. We are now working with the Legislature to fund those increases in the upcoming budget.
Finally, Director Frakes has worked to improve the security of NDCS facilities. Last year, he worked with his wardens to conducted a system-wide audit of facility security. The Legislature invested an additional $5 million in security staffing the last two years, and we have requested additional funding to improve security in my budget request under consideration by the Legislature.
The problems in corrections did not occur overnight, and they won’t be solved overnight. It has taken a multi-year focus from all three branches of state government, and my office continues to prioritize reform.
The next critical step for NDCS is working with the Legislature to secure the funding needed for their budget request. As I mentioned earlier, our request includes expanding programming space and beds for inmates seeking behavioral health treatment, improving facility security and securing additional funds for job training for inmates. Properly addressing mental health is key to successful reentry and reducing the recidivism rate. Over 90 percent of the people who enter our corrections system eventually return to our communities.
Corrections will continue to have challenges even as reform progresses. The people we house in our prisons are there because they broke the law. Nebraska is not the only state that faces these challenges. In the last several months, prisons in Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, California and Delaware have grappled with prison disturbances.
In this legislative session and beyond, my administration will keep our focus on transforming NDCS. This transformation matters for Nebraska because it will help to better protect public safety and help the Nebraskans leaving our prison system become a part of growing our state.