OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — With a new prison being considered and water malfunctions plaguing the state penitentiary, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has been under the watchful eye of the community lately. And on Tuesday, some Omaha residents had a chance to share their concerns with the director, Scott Frakes.
Understaffing and overpopulation were major concerns in Nebraska’s prison system, not just those running it, but for the community at large.
According to Frakes, the prison population was the highest it had ever been right before the pandemic with 5,600 hundred inmates. The system has a design capacity of 3,500 beds and true operational capacity of 4,500 beds.
Numbers were down during the pandemic, but are climbing again with 5,520 inmates currently being housed in the facilities.
“Our population is up, and I fear that’s it's just going to continue to inch its way up,” Frakes told the crowd Tuesday.
Four hundred beds are scheduled to come online next year in the spring, but if the prison system does not address its other issue of low staff levels, it will not make much difference.
“The only way I can open those beds is if I shift people and staff from other living units to those living units and open them up, so we wouldn’t gain any capacity with that,” Frakes said.
Frakes said staffing for NDCS is at crisis levels. At Tecumseh State Correctional Institution and the Reception and Treatment Center, staffing levels have hit a low so they can only operate out of cell movement four days a week.
Frakes said they are prioritizing clinical treatment and routine medical care, but other programs are falling to the wayside.
“We do not have the resources to get people out,” Frakes said. “That means unfortunately that volunteer programs are shut down; that a lot of things we absolutely would like to be doing, we just can’t do.”
NCDS is hoping to address these shortages by offering higher salaries than ever before.
One thing that is looking better is COVID in the prison population. The director says the department is coming out of a fourth wave of the pandemic. Thirteen inmates have died since last summer and around 10 staff members are currently out because of COVID-19.
“It ended up being much less traumatic and a significant overall number of people infected,” Frakes said. “We didn’t have a lot of issues with staff being out.”
The director also answered questions about the 30 hours inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary went without water. He says it was 29 and half hours too long, and that things could have been handled better the night the water went out.
But the staff adjusted, handing bottled water and offering porta-potties.
“Was it good? Absolutely not. Is it something that happens in prisons across America on a regular basis? Yeah, unfortunately,” Frakes said. “Is it something that happens in old prisons, oh yeah, it absolutely does.”
Bad pipes and plumbing are one of several reasons Frakes said he is in support of a new prison. The other reason is an expected growth in incoming inmates.
“The numbers are growing,” Frakes said. “The forecast says by 2025, we’ll be at 6,000 people incarcerated in Nebraska under the trends that we’ve seen.”
Frakes said his goal is not to fill the beds at a new prison but to address a need for a more modern, spacious prison for those in the system.
“If we as a society are going to put people in prison and jail and continue to put them there, then we need to do a much better job of providing living environments for them,” Frakes said.
In addition to questions about living conditions and programs, a representative from Civic Nebraska asked Frakes if he would be in support of the restoration of voting rights for those on parole and probation. Currently Nebraska requires felons to wait two years after completing their full sentence.
“From a personal level, I’m okay with restoration of voting rights,” Frakes said. “Whether or not I would come out and specifically testify on a bill or not? Probably not. Because it’s outside my realm.”