Jun 30, 2020 3:20 PM

Gov. Ricketts: Keeping people safe

Posted Jun 30, 2020 3:20 PM

Prisons play a crucial role in protecting the safety of our communities.  They provide a secure environment where inmates can prepare to successfully reenter society as productive citizens.  Over 93 percent of the inmates who enter our state prison system will return to our communities.  In Nebraska’s correctional facilities inmates participate in pro-social activities, gain new skills, work toward degrees, and earn their diplomas.  These tools and opportunities give them a second chance to transform their lives.

Like all of our state agencies, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) has had to change the way it operates during the pandemic.  As they have done so, the NDCS team has done a tremendous job of minimizing coronavirus infections to date.  Out of a population of about 5,400, only eight inmates have tested positive for the virus so far.  The overall health of the prison system is a credit to NDCS Director Scott Frakes and the entire NDCS team.  They quickly put their pandemic plan into action to deal with coronavirus, implemented guidelines designed to prevent transmission of the illness, delivered testing when needed, and have successfully enlisted the cooperation of those housed at NDCS facilities.  

NDCS’ great work to slow the spread of coronavirus reflects the overall progress the agency has made in recent years to deliver on its mission to “Keep People Safe.”  With their mission in mind, the agency has continued to make significant investments for the betterment of inmates, teammates, and Nebraska citizens.

Under Director Frakes’ leadership, NDCS has improved assessment of inmates’ risks to reoffend and the needs that must be addressed prior to release.  This has led to increased participation and completion of the clinical treatment required for parole.  The number of inmates past their parole eligibility date has dropped from 934 as of March 2019 to 804 as of May 2020.  Of these individuals, 77 percent have completed their required clinical programs or are currently enrolled.  This is thanks in part to collaboration between the Parole Board and NDCS to engage inmates in the completion of clinical treatment. 

Additionally, the agency has partnered with external organizations to work with incarcerated individuals.  For example, RISE shows people what it takes to be entrepreneurs and business owners and Prison Fellowship Academy gives men and women opportunities to live in faith-based housing units.

Investing in the NDCS team has also been a critical part of progress for the agency.  Corrections professionals take on challenging responsibilities every day.  These are tough jobs, and it’s important that we support our team members and attract quality recruits.  In December, we reached agreement with the officers’ union to increase starting pay for corrections corporals, unit caseworkers, and sergeants.  Additionally, the State is offering $10,000 hiring bonuses for new corporals who join our ranks.  These efforts, and others, have allowed NDCS to recruit and retain quality teammates. 

Over the past six years, Nebraska has expanded capacity to manage and serve the offenders sentenced to state prisons.  Since taking office, I have requested and received $170 million for capital construction projects at NDCS.  In September 2017, NDCS opened a 100-bed dormitory at the Community Correctional Center-Lincoln (CCCL).  In March 2019, the agency opened a 160-bed living unit for women at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln.  This fall, NDCS is scheduled to open a 100-bed dormitory at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for those in minimum custody.  A new $75 million Reception and Treatment Center (RTC) will help us deliver better behavioral health interventions.  We’re also working on a $49 million project at the Lincoln Correctional Center (LCC) to add 384 high-security beds by 2022.  Additionally, the State has received responses to a request for information (RFI) that will help guide efforts to determine the appropriate location, cost, custody level, and funding for additional capacity.  All of these investments are geared at safely housing inmates while providing the appropriate environments and opportunities to prepare them for reentry.

As Nebraska approaches July 1, 2020, it’s important to keep these areas of investment in mind.  That is when Director Frakes is required by law to certify whether the state’s prison system is over 140% of design capacity.  As a result of this certification, the Parole Board will accelerate the parole process.  However, the law does not allow for the parole of inmates not ready to be released. 

In the coming years, I will continue to work with the Nebraska Legislature to invest in Corrections so the agency can continue to keep people safe.  Whether it’s additional capacity or other resources, we must all continue to ensure Corrections can deliver on its mission.  If you have questions about the State’s initiatives to keep Nebraskans safe, please email [email protected] or call 402-471-2244.