- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska prison officials are planning a series of changes to reduce inmate crowding and improve employees’ working conditions, the agency’s leader said Tuesday.

Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes unveiled four initiatives in response to employee concerns as well as the recent escape of two inmates from a maximum security facility in Lincoln.

Among the changes is a pilot program that will give Tecumseh State Correctional Institution employees more flexibility by allowing them to work 12-hour shifts, as some have requested. Frakes said he will work with prison staff members on a schedule that reduces mandatory overtime.

The Tecumseh prison increased its staffing levels in the wake of a May 2015 riot that left two inmates dead and caused widespread smoke and water damage. Frakes said the prison won’t return to its pre-riot staffing levels anytime soon.

“We’re not at the point where we can just go back to the way the facility was,” Frakes said.

A second pilot at the Nebraska State Penitentiary will create a new class of supervisors intended to increase employee engagement, shifting some managerial duties from lieutenants to assistant staff sergeants, who will receive a pay increase. Under the current system, some lieutenants have as many as 50 subordinates, making it difficult for them to effectively manage.

Prison officials are also correcting security deficiencies uncovered in an audit, such as aging perimeter fences. Frakes said none of the security issues were major, but “they’re not the kinds of things you want to wait on.”

And in an attempt to ease overcrowding in prisons, the corrections department will build a temporary housing facility for 100 inmates, a building for which lawmakers approved $1.8 million. Frakes said he plans to eventually convert the temporary housing facility into an area that will provide rehabilitative programming.

The initiatives came largely in response to a nearly yearlong “culture study” that looked at why the state was losing experienced prison staffers. The study found that employees want higher pay, safer work conditions and better communication with the department’s top administrators.

Staffing shortages, mandatory overtime and inexperienced staff members have been cited as factors contributing to a dangerous work environment in the prisons. Prison employees and their union have said those conditions were partly to blame the Tecumseh prison riot that left two inmates dead.

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