- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s new corrections director promised Thursday to restore his department’s tarnished reputation, relieve overcrowding and end what he described as a “fear-based culture” among its employees.

Scott Frakes, a former administrator in Washington state’s prison system, told lawmakers he will work to ensure that Nebraska’s department stays accountable to the public.

Frakes was appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts to help fix high-profile problems in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. He started last week but still has to be confirmed by lawmakers.

“The citizens of Nebraska need and deserve a corrections department that makes public safety its top priority,” he said in testimony to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Frakes replaces Michael Kenney, who announced his retirement earlier this month after nearly a year and half as director. The agency has faced criticism for miscalculating hundreds prison sentences, overcrowding and the use of a re-entry furlough program that some senators say is illegal.

It also has come under fire for releasing inmate Nikko Jenkins without supervision, despite his pleas for a mental health commitment. Less than a month after returning to society, Jenkins killed four people in Omaha.

Frakes told lawmakers he has imposed a moratorium on new admissions to the furlough program, which was created unilaterally by the department’s previous administrator under pressure to ease crowding. He said he ordered one of the current 35 participants back to prison after evaluating each case, and will only continue the program if it’s reviewed as required under state law.

He pledged to work with lawmakers to ease prison crowding. The statewide inmate population was 5,221 as of December, more than 59 percent above the prisons’ design capacity.

Several senators urged Frakes to continue firing administrators who were involved with Jenkins before he was released.

“It’s going to take a Superman effort to put us back on a basis with the citizens where they trust what we’re doing in corrections,” said state Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha.

Senators singled out Mark Weilage, a behavioral health administrator, and deputy director Larry Wayne, both of whom testified before the Legislature’s prisons-investigation committee last year. Lawmakers concluded that both men bore responsibility for Jenkins’ release.

Frakes said he plans to make more staffing changes, but he needs time to get a sense of the department’s needs.

The miscalculated sentences have already cost several top officials their jobs.

Two department attorneys, George Green and Sharon Lindgren, retired in August under the threat of being fired, and state prison-records administrator Kyle Poppert resigned this week.

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, whose district includes several state prisons, said he’s concerned that previous agency directors haven’t felt comfortable asking for resources they need to do their jobs. He said he also is worried about the safety of prison employees and their workplace culture.

“There are hundreds of them across the state that work incredibly hard and do the best job that they can,” Coash said. “I don’t believe they’ve been given a fair voice in this whole discussion.”

Frakes said he has already noticed signs of a “fear-based culture” in the department, where employees are afraid to raise concerns about how it’s managed. He said he would work to resolve those concerns.

Frakes, of Olympia, Washington, has 32 years of experience in state corrections. He worked in six different positions in Washington’s corrections department, starting as a correctional officer. He has served as the department’s deputy director since April 2012. In his current role he oversees six prisons, a staff of 2,800 and about 8,000 offenders.

Ricketts announced last month that he had chosen Frakes out of three finalists. The candidates were identified with help from Ford Webb Associates, a national search firm.

Frakes is expected to earn $180,000 a year.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the confirmation next week.

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