Contraband, racial disparities, lack of job training among state prison concerns

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This year’s annual report by the inspector general that provides oversight to state prisons cited racial disparities, contraband issues  and a need for more job training and community corrections beds for inmates. 

The Department of Correctional Services also has made improvements in some areas, including decreasing turnover and overtime, and the numbers of inmates in restrictive housing. 

But Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick said he got less cooperation this year from the department on providing information to the Legislature and to the public. In fact, he said, this may be the first year Corrections Director Scott Frakes did not meet with him prior to the release of the report, he said, despite being asked twice.

Contraband found regularly

In his report, Koebernick called the number of incidents that take place at the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln significant. Drugs, cellphones and other contraband are found regularly.

“There are numerous reports of inmates who are passed out or incoherent or vomiting due to being high on K2 (synthetic marijuana),” he said. 

Inspector General Doug Koebernick

Doug Koebernick

Meth is found consistently. The resultant behavior creates safety issues for staff and other inmates, he said, and leads to conflict and assaults over debt for the cost of the drugs or phones. 

Koebernick said he hopes to see changes in the future from the introduction of substance abuse programs at both the Lincoln and Omaha community corrections centers.

Community beds vs. new maximum prison

During the past year Koebernick said he has been “bombarded” with contacts from inmates, primarily at the Work Ethic Camp and the Omaha Correctional Center, about their attempts to be transferred into a community corrections center prior to their release.

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But Frakes opposed a bill introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop of Omaha to construct a 300-bed community corrections facility, saying the department did not need more community corrections beds.

Frakes has indicated he would instead seek to build a new 1,600-bed maximum-medium prison rather than work release beds. 

CGL Companies of Sacramento, California, which responded to a request for information from the department, said a public-private lease purchase the department is interested in could cost the state $750 million over 30 years. Construction alone, with support space and fees and contingencies, could cost $450 million, the company said.

Other companies speculated initial costs to build would be more in line with the $200 million Frakes estimated, depending on the size. But operating costs could be in the tens of millions each year, Koebernick said. 

This would need a significant and long-term financial commitment from the state to make it a reality, Koebernick said. And with the state facing an $800 million budget shortfall, and possibly more, such a proposal would face incredibly long odds of being funded.

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Frakes’ budget has been turned in to the state budget office and is undergoing review. An announcement on a new prison could come this month.

Higher rates of Black, Native prisoners

Nebraska has traditionally had a high racial disparity when comparing incarceration rates of Black residents, Koebernick said.

Black male inmates make up 55% of Nebraska prison population, while they make up only 5.1% of the state population. White males make up 23% of the prison population but 78.6% of the population of Nebraska. Hispanic males are 16% of the prison population and 11.2% of the state population. Native males are 6% of prisoners and 1.5% of general population. 

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White women are underrepresented in prison but more than three times as many Black women are incarcerated. Native women are incarcerated at over six times their state population, with 1.5% of the state population and 9.7% of the prison population.

Wage compression

Koebernick said wage compression among staff is a concern as a result of the state providing additional pay and incentives to unionized, non-salary staff. Those salaries have started to catch up to supervisory salaries, especially with overtime that salaried staff typically don’t receive. 

Frakes’ salary recently was raised to $250,000.

“Meanwhile, positions such as managers, unit managers, lieutenants and captains have fallen further behind due to additional salary changes for positions they supervise,” Koebernick said.

He said department leaders and the human resources director did not respond to attempts to discuss steps to solve the wage compression issue. 

COVID-19 and population 

In early March, the prisons were close to having 5,700 inmates and appeared to be growing. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on county courts admissions, however, prisons have decreased by around 300 inmates and dropped to approximately 150% of design capacity, lower than the 157% rate a year ago.

The prisons are currently under an overcrowding emergency and certified that the population is over 140% design capacity. 

The Diagnostic and Evaluation Center went from more than 500 inmates residing there to about 393 inmates. The Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York decreased by more than 50 inmates and the Nebraska State Penitentiary went down around 100 inmates. In addition, state inmates housed in county jails has decreased from 100 to less than 50 inmates. 

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The prisons could begin to grow again when county court systems are operating normally, Koebernick has said. 

Improvements in OT and restrictive housing numbers

Beginning in February there’s been a significant decrease in overtime at all facilities. Total overtime for protective services employees — correctional officers, corporals and caseworkers — was approximately 41,385 hours in May but dropped to about 30,350 hours in June. That’s despite no decrease in staff vacancies.

The decrease could be due to an increase in staff at the penitentiary, and changes to 12-hour days at the penitentiary and Tecumseh, Koebernick said.

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There has also been a noticeable decrease in unscheduled leave and vacation leave, a possible side effect of the pandemic, he said.

Another improvement has been a decrease in inmates in restrictive housing, Koebernick said. By definition, restrictive housing gives inmates limited contact with other inmates, strictly controlled movement while out of cell, and out-of-cell time less than 24 hours per week. Protected management units house inmates who cannot be safely mixed in with general population units, and whenever possible operated similarly to general population units.

In August 2018, 414 inmates were in restrictive housing units, and 473 inmates in protective management units. In September 2019, the number in restrictive housing was at 350 and 500 in protective management units. This month, about 220 inmates were in restrictive housing and 460 inmates in protective management.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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