Nebraska State Corrections Director Scott Frakes has proposed a plan to construct a new $320 million state prison between Omaha and Lincoln, but he has to get it through the Appropriations Committee and the Legislature first.
The prison would be a 1,512-bed correctional facility that spans 450,000 square feet and allows for future expansion. In a statement on the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services’ website, Frakes referred to the new prison as a “necessary next step” as Nebraska’s prison population is projected to keep growing.
“We are confronted with an inability to expand existing facilities and an aging infrastructure at the Nebraska State Penitentiary,” he said.
According to Sam Petto, American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska communications director, Nebraska has the second-most overcrowded prison system in the country, and some facilities are currently operating at two to three times above capacity. He said Nebraska is in an overcrowding emergency that, by law, mandates a reduction in the prison population.
Sen. John McCollister of Omaha is a strong critic of the prison proposal and said there are better ways to deal with the overcrowding issue including sentencing reform, parole reform and drug treatment courts.
“Reform efforts are going on around the country,” McCollister said. “So, Nebraska is a bit of an outlier in this idea of building a new prison.”
According to a poll by ACLU of Nebraska, the majority of Nebraskans agree too much taxpayer money is proposed to be spent on the prison. Poll results showed they support focusing on reform that meets mental health and addiction needs instead.
Petto said diverting someone out of the prison system also makes much more fiscal sense.
“The average cost to have someone under supervision for a year if they’re participating in a mental health court program is $3,000 a year,” he said. “By contrast, it costs taxpayers about $40,000 a year to house someone in prison.”
According to state Legislature budget reports, the growth in how much the state spends on prisons is more than that of other significant state funding areas.
“The last 20 years, despite constant construction, Nebraska’s prison overcrowding system has continued as we have given the Nebraska prison system about a 7% budget increase every single year,” Petto said, “That’s a lot higher than say we’re spending on education or other priorities.”
The proposal has also raised questions about how the prison would be staffed. According to Petto, understaffing issues have caused the Corrections Department to need to bus employees to locations, give large signing bonuses and implement mandatory overtime.
“It [the prison] is such a crazy idea because we can’t even staff the prisons we have,” McCollister said.
McCollister said the proposal will have a difficult time getting through the Appropriations Committee. With the exception of the Corrections Department and Gov. Pete Ricketts, he said he has not heard many people pushing for its approval.
“The opposition to a new prison construction spans the political spectrum,” he said.
Petto encouraged Nebraskans to contact their senators to tell them how they feel about the proposal.