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The Building Maintenance Committee, of which I am the chair, held its final meeting of the year at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute last week. While the primary purpose of our meeting was to assess and approve work to rebuild chillers and to replace roofing at the facility, it was also a time to get updated on the progress being made for better security at the prison.
The biggest problem facing the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute has been staffing. On the day of our Building Maintenance Committee meeting, for example, staffing was down 93 people. On average, staffing has been down 30 percent. Consequently, prison guards have been working 12 hour shifts plus mandatory overtime in order to make up for the staffing deficiencies. Overtime at the Tecumseh facility alone adds up to almost one million dollars per year. The Tecumseh facility has also been borrowing protective custody staff from corrections centers in Omaha. Because the Tecumseh facility is not located near a population center and because wages have been low, retention of employees has been the most glaring problem.
The issue regarding pay has recently been addressed. On October 2 Scott Frakes, the Director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, announced a $2,500 recruitment bonus for the first 100 new hires, and current employees will be able to take advantage of some new merit based incentives. Hopefully, these bonuses and incentives will alleviate the staffing deficiencies.
In order to help quell future rioting at the prison, Brad Hansen, the warden, has instituted a new tiered approach to inmate housing and benefits. Inmates now have to earn their perks through good behavior, whereas before they did not. The most aggressive inmates are now being housed together under the strictest conditions and are denied most pleasantries. After an inmate’s behavior improves, he may advance to the next tier, where his prison life becomes a little bit more comfortable and enjoyable.
The warden has also made some physical security improvements to the facility. Previously, two prison guards had been assaulted during the riot on March 10, 2015 when inmates took control of two housing pods. In order to provide better security for the staff, the warden has installed a new escape hatch. In the event of another loss of control, prison staff will be able to leave through the escape hatch and confine the riot to a single housing pod.
Another way the Tecumseh prison is improving is through better programming. The Tecumseh prison has revamped some of its most critical programs. For instance, 21 percent of the inmates at the Tecumseh facility are now sex offenders. Last year programs for sex offenders did not require inmates to accept responsibility for their sexually deviant behavior. The new programs, however, require these felons to accept responsibility for their sex crimes. The pathway to reform cannot begin until an offender admits that he did something wrong.
Moving forward, the Tecumseh Correctional Institute will need to address a wider range of psychological problems held by their inmates. This means that more psychiatrists and counselors will be needed to meet the psychological needs of the inmates. The inmates need more psychological help. The biggest question to be solved, however, is this: How do we pay for it? The Tecumseh State Correctional Institute did not renew its contract with outside mental health practitioners. Instead, all mental health practitioners will now work directly for the State, and this could get expensive.
Scott Frakes and Brad Hansen have taken some positive steps forward towards improving security at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute. Most importantly, though, the State cannot afford another uprising, another senseless murder, or another needless assault on an inmate. The bottom line is that I want our correctional institutions to exhibit a culture of discipline, where safety, security and control reign as our highest priorities.