LINCOLN — State Prison Director Scott Frakes gave his pitch Tuesday for not only building a new, $230 million state prison, but “repurposing” the agency’s oldest facility, the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
Frakes, in a briefing with reporters, said $20 million in already planned upgrades such as new roofs, plus $4 million in remodeling, would transform the State Penitentiary from a prison reaching the “end of its useful life” to a “right-sized” facility that’s safer for inmates and staff, and more effective at rehabilitation.
The penitentiary, which has held up to 1,360 inmates in recent months, has seen several renovations since it was opened in 1869. But the prison director said transforming it from a maximum-medium-minimum security facility to one that only housed medium-risk inmates could help further relieve the state’s prison overcrowding, which is the second-worst in the country.
“It’s a prison that’s been with us for a long, long time and has value left in it,” Frakes said. “Repurpose it. Don’t put a lot of money into it. But use it for low-security inmates.”
Another option would be to spend $196 million to bring the penitentiary up to current standards for housing its current mix of higher-security inmates, according to a program statement the DLR Group released Tuesday that was commissioned by the Corrections Department.
The briefing came as Frakes and the administration of Gov. Pete Ricketts prepare to appear Thursday before the State Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget. They will promote the new, 1,600-bed prison, whose $230 million cost would be spread out over five years.
Repurposing of the State Penitentiary would begin after the new prison, if approved, greeted its first inmates in late 2024.
The new state prison would, Frakes said, become the “new State Pen,” with more modern security systems and ample programming space for both maximum- and medium-security inmates.
The current State Penitentiary, which once housed death row, has aging, hard-to-repair electronics, poor sightlines and unsafe doors that swing instead of slide, Frakes said. It held nearly twice its design capacity of 718 during the fiscal year that ended in July and has been a hotbed for violence against staff and inmates.
“Right-sizing” the penitentiary from holding 1,360 inmates to about 960 would, Frakes said, make the facility safer and provide more space for rehab programs at a time when the state’s recidivism rate — the number of prisoners who commit repeat crimes within three years — has hovered around 31%.
Revamping the penitentiary, he emphasized, would only be possible if state lawmakers voted to move ahead with the new, 1,600-bed prison. If they don’t, the penitentiary’s useful life as a maximum-security facility will soon be exhausted, he said, and the cost of a new prison will continue to rise.
“These are not easy decisions,” he said. “It’s absolutely necessary that we do something.”
State senators were provided the same program statement given to reporters on Tuesday. At a previous briefing on the new prison proposal, some lawmakers questioned how the state could afford such a pricey project while delivering on other state priorities, like increased property tax relief.
Several bills were introduced this year as alternatives to the 1,600-bed prison, which would be built in the Omaha/Lincoln vicinity. One calls for construction of a 300-bed work release center in Omaha costing $52 million.
Frakes and Ricketts have argued that an effort in 2015 to reduce overcrowding via sentencing reductions and other reforms wasn’t successful, and the state has little choice but to build a new prison, something that Nebraska hasn’t done in two decades.
A repurposed State Penitentiary would require about half the staff because of the lower security needs, Frakes said. That would allow some staffers to transfer to the new state prison, thus reducing the need to hire/train new officers.