The state Reception and Treatment Center on the western edge of Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published by the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — Before 2030, Nebraska will need another 1,500 prison beds, even after building a $350-million, 1,500-bed replacement for the aging State Penitentiary in Lincoln, a new report says.

The long-awaited Facility Master Plan for the Nebraska Department of Corrections states that after the new prison is open, the state will be short about 1,300 prison beds, given the expected growth in state inmates.

It recommends decommissioning the 1,023-bed State Pen, the state’s oldest prison, but leaves open the possibility of reusing at least some of its buildings to handle the housing needs.

Lathrop issued warning

The 132-page report, by prison consultants Dewberry, tends to confirm what departing State Sen. Steve Lathrop said earlier this month — that Nebraska isn’t looking at building just one expensive new prison, but two, unless it is willing to adopt sentencing reforms to slow the tide of inmates entering the state prison system.

New Gov. Jim Pillen has included the final funding for the new prison in his budget and has mentioned that some alternatives to incarceration are possible to reduce the new prison construction spending.

On Thursday, a public hearing was held on a bill introduced by State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha that would block any new prison construction until reforms are adopted to reduce new inmates and improve rehabilitation work.

New prison ‘not the answer’

“Building a new prison is not the answer,” McKinney told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

 State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Craig Chandler/University Communication)

Dawn Renee Smith, a spokeswoman for Corrections, said Wednesday that the need for 1,500 additional beds was not a surprise, but that the agency’s top priority is obtaining approval for the new prison now being planned.

Recent flood in a housing unit at the State Pen, which caused its closure and the transfer of inmates to another prison, illustrates the need for the new prison.

Nebraska has had the most overcrowded prison system in the nation, and now holds, on average, about 1,500 more inmates than its nine prisons were designed to hold. The crowding has meant less space for rehabilitation programs and increased stress on staff that, until recently, was woefully short.

That prompted then-Gov. Pete Ricketts ‘administration to propose a new, 1,512-bed prison somewhere in the Omaha/Lincoln/Fremont area. At first, the goal was to reduce overcrowding, but the purpose eventually became replacing the State Penitentiary, which has been plagued in recent years with water line breaks and other problems.

 The report, which had been due last summer, recommended that Nebraska’s first priority was to build the 1,512-bed prison. It’s a facility that could be expanded to 2,040-beds or 3,000 later if necessary, the report said.

State Pen could be repurposed

Outdated buildings at the State Pen should be demolished, the report states. But it says a plan needs to be developed “to determine the future path for this asset,” whether that be a “complete teardown” or modernization or repurposing of the site to “fill the gap” in the prison bed shortage. The Penitentiary would be used for lower custody inmates, the report says.

Previous studies have estimated the cost of totally refurbishing the Penitentiary at $220 million.

In Phase II of the report, in six to 10 years from now, it says 1,500 new prison beds will be needed. It recommends consideration of expanding the new prison, as well as increasing re-entry capacity at the Omaha Correctional Center. 

Expansion at Tecumseh

In 11-20 years from now, the report recommends adding a 256-bed housing unit at the Tecumseh State Prison — which was designed with an extra housing unit in mind — along with 100 extra beds at the youth prison in Omaha and a new department headquarters. Also included in this time frame would be decommissioning the State Penitentiary.

The report noted that several construction initiatives recommended in the last corrections master plan, in 2014, have been completed. Those include:

  • A new female housing unit, with 160 beds, and a 100-bed temporary housing facility for men at the Lincoln Community Corrections Center.
  • A 100-bed housing unit at the State Penitentiary.
  • An additional 384 beds at the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln, along with a 32-bed behavioral/mental health unit.

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