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Nebraska Corrections Director Frakes criticizes bill that would limit overtime for prison officers

LINCOLN A proposal to limit the amount of overtime worked by corrections officers could leave prisons understaffed, putting the public at risk, the head of the state s prisons told a legislative panel Thursday.

There s four facilities in particular that I m not sure what I would do, Corrections Director Scott Frakes told members of the Legislature s Judiciary Committee. I m not sure how we d operate the facilities today with overtime restricted. Legislative Bill 245 would limit protective services staff who guard inmates to working no more than 32 hours of overtime during a two-week period. The bill would also require an employee to be given at least eight hours off before a shift and would protect an employee from repercussions if he or she didn t volunteer to work overtime. If necessary, the department could declare an emergency and suspend the rules.

Overtime has doubled in all the state s prison facilities during the last three years but has increased even more in some, said Inspector General of Corrections Doug Koebernick. Overtime at the Lincoln Correctional Center has more than tripled. Supporters of the measure argued that not limiting overtime would lead to employee burnout. Driven by staff vacancies, overtime including mandatory overtime is among the problems facing the security workers in the state s troubled prisons. The Corrections Department also has been dealing with inmate overcrowding and high staff turnover.

I believe this is an issue of safety, said State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, a key lawmaker on prison issues, who introduced the measure. When employees are not rested or (are) forced to work overtime when they may already be exhausted, chances of making a mistake or an error that can be harmful to inmates or other employees can happen.

Supporters of the measure included Koebernick and the State Ombudsman s Office. Mike Marvin, the head of the state employees union that represents corrections officers, testified in a neutral capacity, saying he s heard concerns from employees on both sides of the issue. Frakes called overtime a symptom of the prisons’ recruitment and retention problems. Capping the number of hours someone may volunteer to work wouldn t address either and could decrease morale if an employee were prevented from working more overtime if he or she desired, he said.

LB 245 was one of two prison-related bills before the committee. A second, also sponsored by Bolz, aims to address assaults on staff at the state s prisons, regional centers and youth treatment facilities. Under LB 243, administrators of state institutions would be required to inform staff who ve been assaulted of any disciplinary action taken against the assailant. The administrator would be required to alert a county attorney, who then would be required to report his or her decision on whether to file charges.

Three people who work at the Lincoln Regional Center testified that they are often left in the dark about whether a patient is held accountable following an assault, and said they felt not enough was done about a recent assault of a female security worker. After the hearing, Kathie Osterman, a Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said the State Patrol was contacted the day a patient physically assaulted a mental health security staffer and ripped her clothing. The December incident resulted in the patient being transferred to the most restrictive unit. The matter was referred to the county attorney s office, which later filed charges.

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