LINCOLN — A Nebraska prison with a history of deadly riots saw another outbreak of violence this week, sparking new criticism from lawmakers on Thursday while the state corrections director defended the facility.
Officials say an inmate punched two guards and bit a caseworker Wednesday at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in southeast Nebraska. Earlier in the week, officials launched a criminal investigation into an inmate’s suspicious death after he was found unresponsive in his cell.
In March, two inmates were killed in an uprising that began when 40 inmates refused to return to their cells in a maximum security unit. The incident came less than two years after a May 2015 riot in which inmates took control of two housing units, killed two prisoners and caused more than $2 million in damage.
Some lawmakers said Wednesday that the problem stems from years of underfunding that has contributed to staffing shortages and a high turnover rate. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and its national partners are promising to sue the state if Gov. Pete Ricketts doesn’t allocate additional money to fill current vacancies and address overcrowding.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said lawmakers need to think “long and hard” before funding the department’s latest budget request. Krist, who has worked extensively on prison overhaul efforts, said the problems stem from persistent overcrowding and a lack of funding in areas that need it most.
“We need more accountability before we put more dollars in place,” Krist said. “Somebody is failing, and the excuse cannot continue to be that these are really dangerous people.”
Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes defended the facility and said the most recent incidents were “outliers” in a corrections system where staff and inmate assaults have declined since 2015. He said he believes the prison is safe.
“It makes it look as though these are systemwide failures, and that’s not necessarily the case,” he said.
Frakes said the prison isn’t as overcrowded as others in the state and is a relatively new facility, having opened in 2001. But he said the department is still struggling to retain experienced correctional officers and is trying to address a growing gang problem. He said some of the violence has been instigated by gang leaders who stay “under the radar.”
Frakes acknowledged that officials probably shouldn’t have built the state’s second-largest prison in Tecumseh, a town of 1,700 about an hour’s commute from Omaha and Lincoln. Because the town is so small, many workers begin their careers at the prison and transfer to facilities closer to their homes after they’ve gained experience.
Critics also say Nebraska’s prisons aren’t competing with higher-paying county jail jobs and don’t offer longevity pay for senior employees, reducing the incentive for workers to stay.
The governor’s budget request called on lawmakers to add 135 new front-line jobs in the corrections department over the next two years, at a cost of $11.2 million. But the plan faced skepticism from some lawmakers who noted that the department already has struggled to fill the positions. Senators and a leading state employee union have argued that corrections officials need to increase salaries to retain workers in the rural prison.
Even if staffing levels were adequate when the violence happened, workers are often exhausted because of mandatory overtime, said Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, which represents corrections officers.
“Things happen, people get tired and the inmates get stressed,” Marvin said.
The department has “got to figure out a way to get staffing levels up to where they need to be,” he added. “I think that’ll go a long way toward addressing the violence there.”