As other states close prisons, Nebraska may build a big one

·4 min read

OMAHA, Neb. — Across the nation officials are closing prisons as crime rates drop and views about drug use change, but not in Nebraska, where the governor is pushing for a new $230 million prison to relieve overcrowding and house a steadily rising inmate population.

It's not certain that lawmakers will support Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' plan to build a 1,512-bed maximum security prison, but the fact that the state is considering what would amount to a 37% increase in bed space runs counter to most states.

Sen. John McCollister, who has introduced bills this year to try to steer more inmates into rehabilitation programs, said he can't understand it.

“It’s too bad Nebraska hasn’t learned from the experiences of other states,” McCollister said. “We’re definitely going against the grain.”

As Nebraska is seeking to expand its prison capacity, other states are taking a different approach.

California plans to shutter one prison this year that holds about 1,500 inmates and another as early as 2022, partly in response to state budget cuts. Connecticut plans to close two facilities as the state’s prisoner population fell to its lowest level in three decades.

In 2019, Republican-led Missouri closed one of its maximum-security prisons for an estimated $20 million savings, after cutting the possible prison time for nonviolent drug offences and allowing parole for more nonviolent offenders.

Similar attempts to reduce Nebraska's prison population have repeatedly stalled because of opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement. Nebraska’s attorney general has argued that most of those serving mandatory minimums in Nebraska are repeat offenders or have committed major drug crimes, such as manufacturing large amounts of methamphetamine.

Offenders who aren't ready for living within the law end up committing serious crimes, including home-invasion robberies and murder, and must be kept away from the public, prosecutors said.

“You've got to work pretty hard to end up in prison on just a possession case,” said Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon. In most drug cases, “you're given several opportunities to turn things around.”

Ricketts and other top officials recently announced a new effort to try to learn why Nebraska's prison population has grown.

But Ricketts acknowledged it's “very unlikely” that Nebraska will be able to close prisons as it strives to ease overcrowding. At a minimum, he said, the state needs to replace its oldest prison, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, built in 1869.

“We all know that we are facing a number of different challenges,” he said.

Nebraska had the nation’s second-most crowded prisons as of 2019, according to federal statistics, with 5,500 inmates held in facilities designed for 4,050. Corrections officials project the inmate population will climb to 6,438 by 2025. The state has 10 prisons, but hasn't opened a new facility since 2001.

Nebraska's inmate population grew 27% between 2009 and 2019, while the state's overall population rose by 7%.

The increase is driven by several factors, including a large number of former inmates who violate their parole, said Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Frakes said state laws that create new crimes also contribute to the growth.

“Maybe it leads to another five or ten people coming to prison — but as you accumulate that over the years, it leads to our current rate of incarceration,” Frakes said.

One study found that of 1,050 Nebraska inmates paroled in 2016, 429 later returned to prison, mostly for technical violations, such as associating with other felons or drug use. Many inmates fail to complete their drug abuse treatment or other programs, officials said.

Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he wants to review other options before supporting a new prison.

“Obviously, the most important thing is keeping the public safe,” Stinner said. “But this is a multi-million dollar decision, and you always have competition for dollars inside the budget.”

Nebraska can't sharply reduce its inmate totals through prison diversion programs because it doesn't have a high incarceration rate compared to other states, said Doug Koebernick, inspector general for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Nebraska ranks 36th nationally, averaging 289 inmates for every 100,000 residents. Louisiana has the highest rate of 680 per 100,000.

States with high incarceration rates have more wiggle room to reduce numbers by changing sentencing laws, he said.

Still, Koebernick said lawmakers should consider more “community corrections” beds that focus on treatment and a successful return to society.

“This is a really costly, long-term decision,” Koebernick said.

Marshall Clement, an executive with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has studied incarceration trends, said states with a “revolving door” of returning parole violators must look at whether they have adequate treatment or job training for those released.

It takes legislatures, courts and governors working together on the problem, he said.

“No one branch of government can fix this on their own...,” Clement said.

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Associated Press reporter David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.

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Grant Schulte, The Associated Press