Consultants Scouting New Prison Sites; Final Decision Pending

Dec. 2, 2021, midnight ·

Lincoln Correctional Center (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media)
Lincoln Correctional Center (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media)

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Consultants are looking for sites where Nebraska could build a new prison, even as lawmakers still have to decide whether – and what – to build.

Earlier this year, Nebraska lawmakers faced a request by Gov. Pete Ricketts and his Corrections Director, Scott Frakes, to approve building a new, $230 million, 1,500-bed prison. Frakes argued the new prison was needed to replace outdated facilities at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, and to ease overcrowding across the system. Nebraska’s prisons last year held an average of just over 5,300 inmates, about 1,700 more – nearly 50 percent -- than the 3,600 they were designed for.

Lawmakers did not make a final decision. Instead, they set aside $100 million in the budget that could be used to start building a prison, if they give it final approval. And they gave the Department of Correctional Services another $15 million to begin design and siting of a new prison, along with studying current and future needs.

In September, Frakes signed a contract for $13.6 million with the DLR Group of Omaha for design and site work. In an interview with Nebraska Public Media, Frakes said the search for a site has already started.

“We have consultants that are out looking for potential sites and identifying areas that would check all the different criteria that we're looking for -- top criteria is a viable workforce,” Frakes said.

Critics of the proposed new prison have questioned how the state could find enough people to run it, when there is already a staff shortage in the existing prisons. But in the last few months, the state has signed contracts with unions representing prison workers that provide raises of up to 40 percent.

Frakes was asked how long it would take to see if that helps deal with the staffing shortage. “I think I right at this moment I know it's working now, he said.

Frakes said applications increased from just a “trickle” to over 100 a day, giving promise of filling the roughly 600 openings among the 2,500 authorized staff positions.

Also affecting staffing is the question of where a new prison would be built. Frakes said there has to be a viable workforce. The contract calls for consultants to look at up to 30 sites of 100 to 160 acres each, in a variety of communities in the Lincoln-Omaha vicinity, and to purchase land options on up to six sites.

Another factor that could affect legislative decisions on a new prison is an engineering study of the state penitentiary in Lincoln. Frakes has argued for a new prison based on the outmoded condition of the pen. Sen. Steve Lathrop, chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said that raises another question.

“The framing of the issue is we need to replace the penitentiary. Does that mean we knock down everything on that corner and get rid of it, or does that mean we build a new facility and turn that into a lower custody-level facility,” he said.

Frakes early-on raised the idea of keeping the penitentiary open as a 900-bed minimum custody facility, but now is headed in a different direction.

“At this point the proposal is to close it and be done with it,” he said. Asked if that means knocking it down, he replied “Ultimately, yeah.”

Frakes acknowledges if the penitentiary is closed down, a new prison would not do that much to increase the capacity of the system as a whole. And acknowledges plans to close the penitentiary could change.

“Between now and the day that the new prison’s open a lot of things could change, but that is the direction at this point,” he said.

Frakes said the engineering study on the penitentiary could be done in early February.

One study that won’t be done in time for legislators in this coming session is an update to the state’s prison master plan. That’s tentatively scheduled to be completed in August, four months after the Legislature’s scheduled to adjourn. But Frakes said he doesn’t expect the lack of a master plan to affect legislative decision making about a new prison.

“By the time they finish their report we'll have an answer (on the new prison). So no, I'm not saying it's a given. I still have very, very high hopes because I do believe it is absolutely necessary,” he said.

Lathrop said deciding on a new prison raises basic questions about how to deal with overcrowding.

“Do we try to build our way out? Or do we try to provide some form of criminal justice reform that other states have done that has been successful in either reducing the population that is incarcerated, or at least stopping the increases?” he asked.

Lathrop, Frakes, Gov. Pete Ricketts and Chief Justice Mike Heavican are among official working together with the federally-funded Criminal Justice Institute, or CJI. The group is considering proposals including some aimed at keeping people from returning to prison once they get out.

Lathrop said if the number of people in the prison system can be held down, that should affect new prison construction plans.

“I think the criminal justice work that we've done this summer and fall should inform what we build if we build it,” he said.

Lathrop said some people need to be locked up, but for others, alternatives to prison could produce more bang for the state taxpayers’ buck.

“Other states have found that there are ways to provide corrections reform where the money's invested in things like programming, post release, supervision, services, transitional housing, those types of things that help the former inmate to be successful on the outside,” he said.

Lathrop said solving overcrowding will probably require both reform and construction in some form.

“I don't think that two are mutually exclusive. It may, and I believe it probably will require some above some criminal justice reforms that are a wiser investment in where we put our money in the criminal justice system and have better outcomes. And there is likely to be some component of building as well,” he said.

What that combination will look may become clearer in the legislative session that begins January 5.