Will Nebraska need not one, but two new prisons at a cost of nearly $500 million?

State senator points to recent comments from state prison official
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Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln is the state’s oldest prison. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Could Nebraskans be on the hook for building not only a $270 million replacement for the Nebraska State Penitentiary, but also for renovating the aging Penitentiary?

That appeared to be a distinct possibility following a legislative hearing earlier this month about upcoming issues facing the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

When asked at a Dec. 2 legislative hearing if the department will require additional prison beds, even after a proposed 1,500-bed prison is built to replace the State Pen, the state’s interim corrections director, Diane Sabatka-Rine, responded “yes.”

“We’ll need to have additional bed space. I don’t know if that includes repurposing the penitentiary or if that includes other options that we’ve not yet explored,” Sabatka-Rine said.

If it’s refurbishing the State Pen, that’s a project the department has estimated would cost $220 million of taxpayer funds.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said the response by Sabatka-Rine was the first time he can recall that state officials have acknowledged that a new prison is just the beginning of a spending spree on prison beds.

“If there’s not some meaningful prison reform — which by the way will make our communities safer — then we’re looking at spending half a billion dollars to accommodate our prison population to the year 2030,” Lathrop said recently.

Ricketts: Bill soft on crime

The Omaha senator, who declined to seek re-election this year, was among the lawmakers pushing for changes in Nebraska’s sentencing laws to allow inmates who behave an earlier opportunity to be released on parole. That, in turn, could avoid the need to build more prisons, he argued.

But a proposal to do that, Legislative Bill 920, was shot down by opponents in the Legislature, along with Gov. Pete Ricketts, who portrayed the measure as “soft on crime.”

LB 920 contained data-driven reforms developed after months of study of nonprison strategies to reduce prison overcrowding. It was done in conjunction with the Crime and Justice Institute, which has helped dozens of states avoid prison construction.

Lathrop, who led legislative probes into prison overcrowding and problems at Corrections during a 12-year legislative career, called the defeat of LB 920 his biggest disappointment.

‘The state that won’t listen’

“We’re going to be known as the state that won’t listen,” he said back in April, referring to the ideas generated by the CJI process.

Since then, Lathrop has sought to understand what plan the state has to address prison overcrowding. He has maintained that Nebraska can’t “build its way” out of the overcrowding crisis and that unless alternatives to incarceration are adopted, the state will be on a continual cycle of building expensive prisons.

Ricketts, during a recent interview, said some reforms are still being considered. Meanwhile, incoming Gov. Jim Pillen, in a separate interview, said he plans to get “aggressive” in seeking funds for new prison construction.

The Legislature, during the 2023 session that will begin Jan. 4, will be asked to allocate the final $115 million to build a replacement for the State Penitentiary, the state’s oldest prison.

Displaced inmates

The Pen, located on Lincoln’s southwest side, was the site of a major water line break in November.  It underscored the infrastructure problems at a 1,300-bed facility that has been operating, with some improvements, since 1869.

The water line break, and the resulting flooding of a housing unit, caused 135 elderly, medium/maximum security inmates to be transferred to another prison. Officials have said it might take a year or two before the water line and other damage is repaired.

Six potential sites in the Lincoln, Omaha and Fremont areas have been studied for the new prison.

Ricketts said that a replacement for the State Pen must be built but that some “justice reinvestment” reforms came out of the CJI study worth pursuing.

One possibility he mentioned was development of “prep houses” that could be used by the State Parole Board to give troublesome parolees a structured environment to get them back on track, thus avoiding a return to prison.

Drug courts an alternative

Ricketts also cited problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, which treat inmates’ addictions through tough love rather than a prison cell. But court officials have said the state lacks the capacity to expand such programs beyond a small percentage of convicted felons.

Pillen said the state can’t continue to “kick the can” down the road on building a new prison.

Both he and Ricketts said a properly built new prison, with proper space for rehabilitation, should help reduce the rate of released inmates returning to prison. About 29.8% of released inmates return to prison within three years, according to Corrections.

Pillen also said Nebraska has a relatively low prison incarceration rate so the problem is not that the state is sentencing too many people to prison.

That claim was disputed by Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, who has said the over-incarceration of Black men must be addressed.

Sabatka-Rine, during her Dec. 2 testimony before the Judiciary Committee, said her preference is not to repurpose the State Pen. But she said projections in the growth of the state’s inmate population will require more prison space, and she’s not dismissing the possibility of rebuilding the State Pen.

When asked to expound on that, a Corrections spokeswoman said the “future of (the State Pen) rests in the hands of the Legislature.”

Lathrop has said there’s no proof that building a new prison will improve recidivism rates. But adding new prisons definitely would mean more staff and more spending, he said.

Master plan in final editing

He said study after study has indicated that inmates who are under parole supervision, which includes requirements to work and attend rehabilitation program, become more successful citizens than those who just “jam out” of prison with no post-release supervision.

The senator said it’s essential to complete a facilities master plan to determine the needs of Corrections so state legislators know what kind of new prison is needed and how large it should be.

That prison facilities study was expected to be completed last summer and more recently was projected to be done by the end of the year.

Laura Strimple, the chief of staff for Corrections, said Wednesday that the report won’t be done by the end of the year but that it is in the final editing stages.

Categories: Nebraska News, News