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Nebraska proposes $230 million new prison to fight crowding

December 21, 2020 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s corrections department will propose to lawmakers a new, $230 million prison to reduce chronic overcrowding that’s likely to get worse, the agency’s director said Monday.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes will present the plan in the upcoming legislative session with backing from his boss, Gov. Pete Ricketts.

State officials have tried for years to ease crowding in Nebraska’s prisons by expanding parole, changing some sentencing laws and creating new diversion programs.

But the population has continued to grow, and the department has struggled to fill prison jobs — especially at the prison in Tecumseh, a small town more than 50 miles away from both Omaha and Lincoln.

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“Here’s the reality: We need a new correctional facility,” Frakes said in a briefing with reporters.

Frakes said a new prison is “truly the best construction value for our state” compared to other options that state officials explored, such as expanding current facilities.

Frakes said the new prison would have a modern design with improved safety features and lower utility costs. He said the estimated $230 million construction costs would be spread over roughly 4 1/2 years, and the facility would cost about $34 million a year to operate. The operational cost could be reduced, though, by converting the maximum-security Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln to a minimum security facility and making a similar conversion at the state’s Work Ethic Camp in western Nebraska.

If lawmakers approve the plan in the 2021 session, the new prison likely wouldn’t open until 2025 at the earliest. The plan could face resistance from some lawmakers, who have pushed for more changes to sentencing laws and more rehabilitative programming as the best way to reduce crowding.

The new prison would add 1,512 new prison beds to Nebraska’s prison system, for a total of 6,562 in all facilities. Nebraska currently has 5,540 adult inmates in facilities that are collectively designed for about 4,050. The inmate population is expected to increase to 6,438 by the end of 2025, according to the JFA Institute, a prison research group.

Frakes said he doesn’t yet know where the prison would be located, but the need for staffing and outside rehabilitation services would likely rule out small towns. He said the constant struggle to find workers who will commute to Tecumseh has “haunted” the department ever since that facility opened in 2001.

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