- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is planning to interview 300 employees as part of a “culture study” to make changes within the problem-plagued agency, the director announced Monday.

The department said it will interview randomly selected staff members at all of the department’s facilities, across all shifts, to look at training, career advancement opportunities, performance evaluations and management. Director Scott Frakes previously announced that he would release a strategic plan this fall that would serve as a guide for the department.

The department has faced repeated problems in recent years, from miscalculated prison sentences to a riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution that left two inmates dead. Prison officials were heavily criticized for their handling of Nikko Jenkins, an inmate who killed four people in Omaha after he was released despite his pleas for a mental health civil commitment.

The prisons have also faced overcrowding and staffing issues that required more overtime, leading to high rates of burnout. Union officials have complained that the department stopped giving pay increases for longevity several years ago, which eliminated a key tool for retaining workers.

Frakes, appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts in February, said he has sensed a “fear-based culture” among employees and promised to slow the turnover rate.

“This is a great opportunity for the talent in corrections to share their honest and open perspective,” Frakes said Monday.

The governor’s chief human resources officer, Sharon Pettid, will lead the study, which is expected to be completed this year. Officials said staff members can also request an interview if they are not included in the random sample.

Pettid said the study will help provide a better sense of the cultural challenges within the department. Feedback from the interviews will remain confidential, but coded by position and location.

A state-employee union leader said he supported the general concept of the study, although he did not yet know specifics about what it would entail.

“I’m not unhappy about it,” said Mike Marvin, executive director of Nebraska Association of Public Employees. “We’ve always said they’re not listening to the employees, and there are a lot of issues out there in corrections.”

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