$270 million prison proposal runs into tough questions and calls for alternatives

By: - February 3, 2022 9:45 pm
Nebraska State Penitentiary

The Nebraska State Penitentiary on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to build a new, $270 million prison to replace the aging State Penitentiary ran into some tough questions Thursday from a legislative committee.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the legislative committee that writes the state budget, led the criticism, saying the state has increased prison spending by more than $300 million over the past seven years without solving Nebraska’s nation-leading prison overcrowding.

Building a 1,500-bed prison won’t remedy the problem, he said, when projections show that within five years of opening the facility, another 1,300-bed prison will be needed.

Sens. Wendy DeBoer and John Stinner
State Sen. John Stinner (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

“If I’m going to plan for 20 years, like I should, we should be allocating a billion dollars,” Stinner said, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. 

After the hearing, the senator said he thinks the committee will need more information, including the results of a prison facilities study that won’t be done until August, before members will be comfortable spending that much taxpayer money on a new prison.

“It’s a little hard to greenlight something when you don’t have all the facts and figures yet,” Stinner said.

Thursday’s public hearing on the Nebraska Department of Corrections’ proposed budget, provided one of the first opportunities for senators and the public to weigh in on the prison construction plan, which is among the most expensive state building projects in history.

The hearing came as state prisons hold about 1,900 more inmates than they were designed to hold, and when emergency procedures have been implemented at three prisons because of a staff shortage.

‘We need a new facility’

Representatives of the Omaha police and corrections officers unions spoke in favor of a new prison, saying that Nebraska has not kept pace with neighboring states in expanding prison capacity and that a new prison would be safer for workers.

“(The State Penitentiary) has a lot of blind spots,” said Mike Chipman, president of the corrections worker union. “We need to build a new facility.”

Chipman said newly implemented pay raises seem to be working to ease staffing shortages and high turnover, with 600 applications in December and only 13 staffers quitting in January.

But a wave of testifiers said Nebraska’s money would be more wisely spent on sentencing reforms and on programs that keep people out of prison, speed up their release on parole and ensure they don’t commit repeat offenses.

‘Other states’ approve reforms

“Other states have charted a different course without sacrificing public safety, and Nebraska can do the same,” said Danielle Conrad, a former state senator who serves as executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska.

Nebraska has not built a new, stand-alone prison since opening the Tecumseh State Prison in 1997. State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said state prisons have been below the desired “operational capacity” — defined as 125% of design capacity — for 40 years.

He and his boss, the governor, maintain that the 818-bed State Penitentiary in Lincoln has outlived its useful life and would require $220 million in repairs for water, sewer and electrical improvements. 

Frakes said it makes more sense, both fiscally and to improve security and rehabilitation programming, to tear down the State Penitentiary and “build new and fresh.” 

Sen. Mark Kolterman
State Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

He told the Appropriations Committee that an option on one parcel of land has been signed already. But Frakes said he could not “confirm or deny” rumors that a site in Fremont has been picked. 

One senator on the committee questioned whether Fremont would be an appropriate location, given the chronic staffing shortages at the rural Tecumseh prison, which is about the same distance from Omaha and Lincoln as Fremont is.

Seward Sen. Mark Kolterman asked whether it wouldn’t be smarter to situate the new prison in Lincoln, where the state already has trained staff. Frakes said sites in Omaha, Lincoln and areas in between are being considered to ensure an adequate workforce. 

He added that it was “absolutely my desire” to build in a community where “a majority agrees it’s a good thing.”

Changing ‘narratives’

Frakes fended off questions about the Ricketts administration’s “narrative” for building a new prison had changed in recent months.

Initially, a public-private partnership was being pursued. Then the new prison was billed as allowing the State Penitentiary to be repurposed as a minimum security facility. Now, the plan is to tear down the Penitentiary — despite having some housing units that are nearly new — and replace it.

Frakes said he changed his mind about establishing a worker-training program at the State Pen after a recent report showed how expensive it would be to bring the facility up to standards. Last year, the water system failed for 36 hours — suspending showers and requiring portable toilets — which he said could have led to a prison riot if it had not been resolved. 

Besides Stinner and Kolterman, several of those testifying against the new prison said sentencing reforms are needed, including diversion programs that treat addicts and the mentally ill instead of sending them behind bars.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop has a proposal, Legislative Bill 920, that would implement several reforms that grew out of a study of the state’s criminal justice system last year by the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute. That institute has helped a dozen states reduce prison populations and save money.

Carol Dennison of the League of Women Voters said diversion programs, education programs and workforce training are better solutions than continuing to pour money into “a failing system that is in desperate need of reform.”

The Appropriations Committee took no action on the proposed budget after the hearing. It is still working through various spending proposals before issuing a proposed budget later this session.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

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