Lawmakers see need for more Neb. prison oversight

Members of an oversight committee spent three days looking into financial problems, overcrowding, mental health services and staffing shortages within the Department of Correctional Services

By Grant Schulte
Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers who investigated the state prison system last week saw so many problems that they may have to continue direct oversight of the department for years, legislative leaders say.

Members of an oversight committee spent three days looking into financial problems, overcrowding, mental health services and staffing shortages within the Department of Correctional Services.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said solving the problems will likely require funding for various rehabilitation programs and staffing, as well as continued reviews by lawmakers.

Mello, who leaves office in 2017 because of term limits, said the oversight committee may need to become a permanent fixture of the Legislature to ensure that senators' concerns are addressed.

"It's not just about changing the culture of the agency," Mello said. "That's not going to resolve years of neglect in regards to mental health services, programming, treatment of inmates and overcrowding. Consistent oversight is going to be needed, year after year after year."

The hearings came as corrections director Scott Frakes unveiled a new strategic plan to help address overcrowding and ensure that more inmates get treatment. The department will request an estimated $26.2 million from the Legislature for a net increase of 148 beds at community corrections centers in Lincoln and Omaha.

Frakes told lawmakers he's working to address the problems with a new leadership team, but he faced criticism for not moving as quickly as some senators wanted. Frakes said he won't know until next year if the department needs even more money to address prison crowding because he needs time to evaluate its needs.

"I don't want to make bad decisions," Frakes said Friday. "I'm doing my very best to make sure we stay on track."

The department has faced repeated problems in recent years, from miscalculated prison sentences to a riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution that left two inmates dead. Prison officials were heavily criticized for their handling of Nikko Jenkins, an inmate who killed four people in Omaha in 2013 after he was released despite his pleas for a mental health civil commitment.

The prisons have also faced overcrowding and staffing issues that required more overtime, leading to high rates of burnout. Union officials have complained that the department stopped giving pay increases for longevity several years ago, which eliminated a key tool for retaining workers.

A recent state audit found a variety of financial problem attributed to poor management and oversight, most of which took place before the state's new corrections director was appointed to his job.

Auditors said the department paid nearly 59,000 hours of unnecessary overtime between July 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2014, totaling more than $1 million. They also faulted the department for overpaying nearly $370,000 because it lacked procedures to ensure that inmate medical claims from off-site providers were proper.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, the committee chairman, said the hearings demonstrated the need to take "a strong look" at the state's mental health system for prisoners.

Seiler said he also wants more specific details about the department's strategic plan. Lawmakers on the panel criticized the initial plan as too vague, saying it didn't include any way for them to measure the department's success.

Frakes "is battling a long-term problem," Seiler said. "I respect that, but I haven't heard many solutions to the long-term problems."

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said the Legislature shouldn't micromanage the prison system, but lawmakers need specifics on what problems corrections officials are facing so they know where to spend money.

Lawmakers have taken some steps already to increase oversight. Earlier this year, they created a new state inspector position to serve as a watchdog over the department. The inspector general operates within the state ombudsman's office, which answers to the Legislature rather that the executive branch.

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