Corrections Director Frakes says Nebraska prisons are still crowded, but on right path

LINCOLN — Prison reforms meant to reduce overcrowding have fallen short of their target prison population so far, the head of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services said Friday.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes told a legislative oversight committee that the state’s total inmate population when he arrived in February 2015 was 5,383. As of Tuesday, he said, the population is 5,306 — a decrease of 77.

But the current population is about 500 inmates more than estimates by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, a group that has helped several states reduce overcrowding. The group projected that the population would be 4,762 at the end of September 2016.

Frakes called the group’s numbers “overly optimistic,” though he said he believes that reforms are moving the system in the right direction.

Former State Sen. Steve Lathrop, who led the committee’s questioning, asked Frakes whether he thinks the prison system will be at or below 140 percent capacity by 2020, at which point a state of emergency must be declared.

“I believe we are” going to be able to make that goal, Frakes said.

Though Frakes pointed to a number of initiatives to address the system’s capacity problems, some members of the committee expressed concern.

“We still have a long way to go to get to that 140 percent,” Omaha Sen. Heath Mello said.

Friday’s all-day hearing focused on overcrowding and efforts that officials are taking to better prepare inmates for release. Nebraska’s prisons were at 157 percent of design capacity in September, though that number is higher if state inmates serving time in county jails are factored in.

Chronic overcrowding is just one problem that the troubled agency has dealt with in recent years; another is the mistaken early release of hundreds of inmates.

The department has a hard time recruiting staff, said Diane Sabatka-Rine, deputy director of institutions. About 200 protective services posts are vacant, which means other officers must work mandatory overtime. A recent staffing analysis said the department needed an additional 138 corrections officers.

Lathrop called the large number of vacancies an “underlying problem to public safety.”

Sabatka-Rine also acknowledged that assaults on staff members are rising at an alarming rate.

From January through August, 141 staff members have been assaulted, 10 of which resulted in serious injuries, she said. That compares with 78 staff assaults — about half that number — in 2013, none of which resulted in serious injury, she said. Those assaults ranged from hitting to throwing bodily fluids.

“To be clear, our department’s goal is zero” staff assaults, she said.

Sabatka-Rine said inmates are more defiant. Frakes attributed the spike in assaults to a lack of programming, a lack of space and a general need for a healthy culture.

Frakes was hesitant to attribute the increase in serious assaults to overcrowding, saying serious assaults were down in 2013 when the prison system was about 150 percent over capacity.

“To say there’s a direct cause and effect, I struggle with that,” he said. He noted that overcrowding is “certainly” a factor.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist questioned whether “good time” is being taken away from inmates involved in recent disturbances. He said he believes the department doesn’t effectively use good time, which can shorten an inmate’s sentence.

He called keeping corrections officers safe the department’s No. 1 problem. “We’ve got to have safe institutions,” he said.

Disturbances at Nebraska prisons have included the 2015 riot at the Tecumseh State Prison that left two inmates dead, the escape of two inmates from the Lincoln Correctional Center in June and the August assault of nine corrections officers at LCC.

More recently, inmates started two fires in cells, one using a battery and a candy wrapper; staff fired a warning shot at the Nebraska State Penitentiary after inmates refused to leave the yard and converged on staff; and Nikko Jenkins, who has been convicted of killing four people, was able to get an officer’s badge, keys and a razor to cut himself.

Other topics discussed during the hearing:

» More than 1,300 inmates are eligible for parole, but they’re not being paroled, said Rosalyn Cotton, chairwoman of the Nebraska Board of Parole. Inmates don’t show up to parole hearings, or they’re so close to their “jam out” date that they waive their appearance, she said. Some inmates don’t want to participate in programming that would be required for parole. The board also sees issues with the availability of programming to address sex offenses and substance abuse.

» The annual cost to house an inmate is about $35,000, compared with $45,000 for those on death row, who are in restricted housing that requires additional high-security staffing, Frakes said.