LINCOLN — Nebraska's corrections department is using new incentives to try to fix employee recruiting challenges and high turnover rates at the state's two largest prisons, the agency director said Monday.
The Department of Correctional Services is offering a $2,500 signing bonus to the first 100 new employees hired through Nov. 17 to work at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution and the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
The department will also pay experience-based merit raises to staff members the Tecumseh prison, said Scott Frakes, the department's director. Employees with one to three years of service will get a 2.5 percent raise, and the amount will increase up to a 10 percent for employees with more than 10 years of service.
Department officials hope the incentives will help fill open jobs, which could save money by reducing employee overtime costs. Using overtime to staff the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution costs the state nearly $1 million more per year than it would if vacant positions were filled, according to the department.
The package is also designed to address concerns from prison employees and their union about turnover and a lack of incentive for experienced employees to stay at the prisons, which house some of the system's most difficult inmates.
"This two-prong approach should allow us to address the issues that we've seen at Tecumseh... and at the same time allow us to bring new staff into (the Nebraska State Penitentiary)," Frakes said at a briefing with reporters.
The staffing shortage at Tecumseh, in particular, represents one of the biggest challenges the corrections department now faces, Frakes said. He said adding new staff will allow the prison to offer more rehabilitative programming and reduce violence.
"This is really exciting," Frakes said in a briefing with reporters. "This is a chance to let Tecumseh be everything that people wanted it to be when it was built."
The southeast Nebraska prison was the site of two inmate uprisings in a two-year stretch that led to the combined deaths of four inmates and caused widespread damaging in housing units. Corrections officials have said the prison was adequately staffed at the time, but union officials argued that employee burnout and a lack of experience played a role.
Prison officials have struggled to keep the prison staffed for a combination of reasons, including the high-stress environment, mandatory overtime and its location in a rural area, roughly an hour's drive from Omaha and Lincoln. Some department employees begin their careers at Tecumseh but transfer to facilities closer to their homes once they've gained more experience.
The executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the union that represents most prison workers, did not immediately return messages on his office and cell phones.
Frakes said his agency should know in about 30 days whether the signing bonus is working as intended, and he hopes to see the turnover rate in the prisons decline within three to four months. He said he hopes to see turnover fall below 20 percent per year for protective services staff, down from the current rate of roughly 25 percent.
The incentives will apply to front-line corrections officers, mental health professionals, case managers and others considered nondiscretionary.
"We should be able to see, and I believe we're going to see, some pretty significant impact in those turnover numbers," Frakes said.