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Employees at Nebraska state prisons describe realities of understaffing
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Employees at Nebraska state prisons describe realities of understaffing

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In a packed hearing room on Wednesday, person after person — corporals, a librarian, a lieutenant, a parent of an inmate, a nurse, caseworkers, staff members who've resigned, and others — gave powerful testimony of what record-high vacancies and other troubling issues at the state's Department of Correctional Services have meant for their daily work, safety and inmates' lives.

“Decreases in staff have always led to violence, they’ve always led to death," said Jeff Seeley, a lieutenant at the prison in Tecumseh. "We have to do something about it.”

Lawmakers on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee listened and asked probing questions while testifiers detailed emergency lockdowns that keep inmates in their cells and away from rehabilitative programming, legitimate fears for safety, low wages, increases in drugs and other contraband, and an illogical decision-making structure. 

The forum was scheduled to accommodate shift changes at the facilities, offering workers a chance to come share their experience after shift-change at 7 p.m. The situation, many emphasized, is urgent.

“This is our Hail Mary pass," said Cpl. Chris Bergner, who said he's bused to work at the state penitentiary in Lincoln from Omaha. Bergner told The World-Herald that, just the day before, he had worked an 18-hour shift.

Rhonda Wilson said her son is in the general population at Lincoln Correctional Center but was locked in his cell for 2½ weeks straight, and he wasn't let out for showers or to talk to his young son. She's concerned for his mental and physical health.

“It’s barbaric," she said. "It’s inhumane.”

Seeley talked about having to place staff in positions where they end up being assaulted. Another testifier, caseworker Becky Bohling, told of her personal experience when that came to fruition — an inmate severely beat her, she said. She at least partially blames the assault on staffing issues, and said the experience has kept her at home for nearly a year. 

Tabatha Richter, who works at the department's central office, talked about miscommunications and delays caused by people in jobs they're not qualified for.

At the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln, James Hebbard, a former Marine, said ideally there would be between 15 and 20 people monitoring 300 inmates. The facility's operational capacity is 200 inmates, and state data shows the average daily population was about 418 for the year that ended in June 2021.

On a good day, when he's come in for a night shift, he said there are about five people working. If there's a medical problem that requires transportation to an outside hospital, he said, it becomes three.

When COVID-19 hit, he said, experienced staff with suggestions to reduce contamination were "laughed at." He didn't find out for three days that 12 inmates on his floor had tested positive, Hebbard said. By that time, he said, he had been in three different positions in three different housing units.

Asked what might help, he said "An overhaul of the whole department." 

Brooke Myers, who said she is bused to work in Tecumseh, said she was recently asked to serve in a sergeant's role for a day, a position she, as a 19-year-old who has worked for the department less than six months, had no training for. She and Bergner noted to The World-Herald that they were not speaking for the department.

Several speakers mentioned a problem with decision-making being centralized rather than made by local leadership, which one testifier said began when the department's current director, Scott Frakes, started in 2015. Important decisions aren't in control of the wardens at the facilities who are there every day, testifiers said. Several testifiers also identified the need for a drastic increase in wages.

Terri Lovejoy, a lieutenant at the combined Lincoln facility, said if supervisors aren’t making a good wage, they can take what they learned from the state to another department. Without those employees, she said, programs are lost.

“If they don’t get programming, they lose hope, just like our staff have lost hope,” Lovejoy said. “And that’s dangerous.”

Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha asked nearly every — if not every — testifier if they thought a new prison would be a solution or good idea. Some said a new prison could help or is necessary, but nearly all also said there's no way it could be adequately staffed under the current conditions and that would need to be addressed. Others totally rejected the idea outright.

Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration has proposed building a 1,600-bed, $230 million prison to replace the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

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