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Nebraska sets stage for new prison, stops short of approval

April 9, 2021 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers set the stage Friday for a new, $230 million prison even as other states close theirs, but they stopped short of fully endorsing the idea.

Lawmakers gave first-round approval to $14.9 million in state funding that would allow the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to start designing and planning for a prison to house 1,512 inmates and relieve chronic overcrowding. The measure includes $18 million to add bed space for inmates who are elderly, have mental health issues and those with special needs.

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The Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee agreed to set aside $115 million — half of the new prison’s cost — but members held off on approving the money until they know more about their options.

“There is much more due diligence that needs to be done before we ever — if we ever — allow a shovel to touch dirt,” said Sen. Anna Wishart, of Lincoln, who serves on the committee.

Lawmakers advanced the budget measure, 37-3, through the first of three required votes before it would go to Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Wishart said lawmaker also need to examine salaries for prison staff, “and we need to look at overall morale and the climate in corrections” to deal with high rates of employee turnover.

Nebraska had the nation’s second-most-crowded prisons as of 2019, according to federal data, and the crowding is projected to worsen in future years. But some lawmakers argued fiercely against a new prison, saying the state should take other steps to address the problem.

Sen. Terrell McKinney, of Omaha, said the state should focus instead of helping the poor and minorities, who account for a large proportion of Nebraska’s prison population, before they run afoul of the law.

McKinney said he grew up poor, has been arrested himself and saw his father serve time at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. He argued that many prisoners are incarcerated due to unequal treatment of minorities, a lack of investment in their communities and racist public policies.

“Why do we refuse to address the root issues?” he said.

Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, said the proposed prison would be one of the most expensive construction projects the state has ever funded. She said approving the design and planning money would only build momentum toward a new prison.

“The solution is getting smart on justice: investing in prevention, investing in rehabilitation. Not locking people up,” she said.

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The $14.9 million appropriation “seems like a lot to commit to a project we’re not necessarily going to build,” she said.

The funding would also pay for an engineering study to figure out how much useful life is left in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the state’s oldest prison that dates back to 1869. Prison officials have said the penitentiary in Lincoln needs to be vastly upgraded or replaced in the next few years.

Sen. John Stinner, the Appropriations Committee chairman, called the overcrowding “a stain on the soul of Nebraska,” but said he wants better data to know which option is the most cost-efficient.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte