Senators consider prisons, prayer

Feb. 21, 2023, 4:14 p.m. ·

Interim Corrections Director Diane Sabatka-Rine listens to a question Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Interim Corrections Director Diane Sabatka-Rine listens to a question Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

A legislative committee considered the pros and cons of building a new prison today/Tuesday. And there was some tension in the Unicameral over the place of prayer in the body’s daily business.

Former Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed building a new, 1,500 bed prison to replace the Nebraska State Penitentiary two years ago. Back then, the estimated cost was $230 million. Now, it’s up to $350 million. And Interim Corrections Director Diane Sabatka-Rine told the Appropriations Committee the need to replace the penitentiary, or NSP, is greater now than ever.

“This project can no longer be delayed. As you may recall, NSP recently lost a housing unit due to a water main break, requiring 140 inmates to be relocated. Those beds will not be usable for the foreseeable future. This is an example of the aging infrastructure at the penitentiary, and such incidents are likely to continue to occur at the facility if a replacement facility is delayed even further,” Sabatka-Rine said.

Sen. Tony Vargas asked if the penitentiary would really be shut down if a new prison is built.

“I want to make sure we're not, depending on what the committee does, on what the Legislature does with creating a new facility and a prison, what the plans are for NSP and if it's not just being kept and then now we're just (going to) have more prison beds,” Vargas said.

Sabatka-Rine said keeping the penitentiary open is not the plan.

“Our plan is that we would decommission the penitentiary. I'm not sure exactly how that process would work. I've never experienced that, and quite frankly, I'm not sure that the department has experienced it for many years,” she said.

Several people spoke against building a new prison, including Diane Amdor of the Nebraska Appleseed Center. Amdor said people who support a new prison based on public safety are using too narrow a definition.

“Instead of limiting the realm of public safety to things like police and prisons, it is essential and more cost-effective to fund the programs that makes sure that all Nebraskans have access to housing, food, health care, including mental health care, meaningful work opportunities, education, and support for our children,” Amdor said.

The Legislature has already reserved $255 million for a new prison, but has not yet given permission for the money to be spent. Gov. Jim Pillen is asking for an additional $95 million to cover the increased cost of the project.

Aside from the Appropriations Committee hearing, the full Legislature debated a series of noncontroversial bills. However, controversy did arise after the session began — as usual - with a prayer -- this one delivered by Sen. Dave Murman, who quoted a prayer by George Washington.

“Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that that thou will keep the United States in thy holy protection, that thou wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, and entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens of the United States at large,” Murman quoted Washington as saying.

Sen. Megan Hunt told her fellow senators prayer should not be on the Legislature’s agenda, adding that the prayer is almost always Christian.

“You can pray on your own time. Many of you do. You absolutely should. You know, if we ever come to a place where we have a Muslim state senator, or a Buddhist state senator, or a Jewish state senator, I think that we would be having a very different conversation. But the fact is in Nebraska, we haven't elected people like that,” Hunt said.

Actually, Nebraskans have elected several Jewish state senators, including Richard Fellman and Neil Simon, who served in the 1970s and 80s, but not as yet any professed Muslims or Buddhists.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh also commented about mixing religion into state business, complaining that state email was being used to invite senators to Bible study.

Murman defended his prayer, reiterating that it was a direct quote from George Washington.

“If you have something against our first president -- what he said -- I'm not sure if this is a place to say it. And I do move to strike Senator Hunt and Senator Cavanaugh’s comments since they are not germane to today's bill,” he said.

The Legislature’s rules have no provision for striking any senator’s remarks from the record, and in fact require a verbatim record of all debates.

And Hunt was not persuaded to withdraw her criticism of Murman’s prayer just because he quoted George Washington.

“I was amused that his defense of it was ‘Well, these are the words of George Washington, so if you don't like George Washington then I don't know what to tell you, maybe you're in the wrong place,’ this and that. You know what? I don't like George Washington. When he died, he had 153 slaves,” she said.

Hunt proposed a rules change earlier this year to take the daily prayer off the agenda, but the proposal was not adopted, so the practice continues.