Appropriations Committee endorses new prison

April 6, 2023, midnight ·

Gov. Jim Pillen watches as Carolyn Bosn accepts his appointment to the Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Gov. Jim Pillen watches as Carolyn Bosn accepts his appointment to the Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee Thursday endorsed spending $350 million to build a new prison. The move came despite warnings it will be overcrowded the day it opens.

In December, 2020, former Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed building a new, 1,500-bed prison to replace the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The proposal has been a political football ever since.

It’s been pushed forward by supporters who say it’s needed to alleviate overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons, which hold about 50 percent more inmates than they were designed for.

Opponents have pushed back, saying that Nebraska can’t build it’s way out of overcrowding, and needs to change laws that expand the prison population, like mandatory minimum sentences.

But there was no disagreement Thursday, as the Appropriations Committee voted 9-0 to endorse building a new prison. As opposed to the $230 million Ricketts originally said it would cost, the latest estimate tops $350 million.

Sen. Rob Clements, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said a new prison is definitely needed.

“I have toured the current state penitentiary, and the condition of it is beyond repair. In my opinion, the estimate to rehabilitate the current facility is close to what a new one would cost.

the programming that inmates are getting -- there's not enough space. A new facility would have a better space for programming so they don't end up back in prison,” Clements said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney, a leading opponent of building a new prison, took to the legislative floor shortly after the committee vote to voice his continued opposition.

“By Day One of that new prison being open, it will be overcrowded, and we will still have an issue with overcrowding. We can't even staff Tecumseh (State Correctional Institution) still, and individuals that are incarcerated there can't even see their families on weekends because of a staffing shortage. So I got on the mic to say if you oppose the prison, please call your senator and let them know you oppose it, especially without criminal justice reform,” McKinney said.

Sen. Anna Wishart is a member of the Appropriations Committee who has previously opposed building a new prison before the state reforms how it sentences people for crimes. Wishart explained Thursday why she’s changed her mind.

“At a certain point, we have an ailing correctional facility in the penitentiary. And it becomes inhumane to incarcerate people in that facility. And we're going to have to build a new facility. And what I've been really clear with my colleagues about is, I don't want to build a new correctional facility, I want to do criminal justice reform and I’ve supported that. But if this Legislature doesn't have the will to do that, then what we end up doing is having to build more incarceration facilities,” Wishart said.

Sen. Justin Wayne chairs the Judiciary Committee, which has been working on a proposal for criminal justice reform. Previous attempts have foundered when objections from law enforcement objected to ideas like ending mandatory minimum sentences. Wayne said he wants to take a different approach, but declined Thursday to get into any specifics, saying he’s going to meet with police and police union officials Monday to finalize a proposal.

“I mean, there's gonna be some things we don't agree on in this package. But all in all, we want to get to a point where they view it doesn't harm public safety, and we view it as criminal justice reform and can reduce our prison population,” Wayne said.

Also Thursday, Gov. Jim Pillen announced his appointment of Carolyn Bosn to replace Sen. Suzanne Geist, who’s resigning to spend full time campaigning to become mayor of Lincoln.

Pillen praised Bosn, a former Lancaster County prosecutor, for her willingness to serve and her character, and mentioned her husband as well.

“Carolyn has an extraordinary public servant heart. It's as pure as gold. And why is Carolyn stepping up? Because her and Reggie want to make a difference. Pure and simple, pure team Nebraska all the way. Second is her character. Anybody doing business with Carolyn is going to know her yeses, yes, her nose or no, and there will not be any gray in her life,” Pillen said.

Bosn was asked about two closely-contested bills in this year’s session: a proposed ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, and a ban on puberty blockers, hormones and surgery to help Nebraskans under age 19 with gender transitioning. Bosn was asked if she agrees with Geist’s votes in support of those two bills.

“Yes I do. I absolutely do,” she replied.

But she demurred when asked about an amendment, proposed by Sen. Merv Riepe, which would extend the time limit to obtain an abortion to 12 weeks.

“To be honest I’m not fully informed on what all that entails. I’m happy to read up on it and I’ll answer that question maybe better at a later time. But I believe life begins at conception and I support – stand behind Sen. Geist’s position on that,” Bosn said.

The Legislature now begins a four-day weekend. Speaker John Arch said senators will take up the abortion debate Wednesday.