LINCOLN — For the first time in more than two decades, the State of Nebraska is formally proposing to build a new prison.
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes on Monday said he’ll be seeking $230 million to build a 1,512-bed prison that would house a mix of maximum-, medium- and minimum-security inmates.
If the State Legislature approves the plan, Frakes said he would pursue proposals from communities in and near Omaha and Lincoln to host the 160-acre facility and the hundreds of jobs it would provide.
“We as a prison system have been underbuilt for at least 40 years,” he said. “We know we have a need.”
Nebraska has the second-most overcrowded prison system in the country, trailing only Alabama, which is under federal order to build new facilities. Nebraska’s prisons now hold about 1,800 more inmates than they were designed to house. That has forced some inmates to sleep on temporary, plastic floor cots and has complicated efforts to provide rehabilitation programs, as well as socially distance inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Frakes said the last time Nebraska’s prisons were not overcrowded was in 1994. Even the construction of the state’s last new prison, the Tecumseh State Prison, which began in 1998, or the investment of $170 million over the past six years in prison expansions, have failed to keep ahead of a growing inmate population.
Recently, a consultant projected that Nebraska would have nearly 6,000 prison inmates by June 2022, which is 2,365 more than the current design capacity and 660 more than the prison population as of Monday.
If state lawmakers approve the plan, construction could begin as early as August 2022, with the first inmates moving in two years later and the facility completed by 2025 or early 2026.
“These are lengthy processes. And it’s a lot of money,” Frakes said. “Four and a half years (to completion) is not unreasonable.”
The cost of the project would be spread across the next five years, he said, with $115 million being sought in the next, two-year state budget.
The department’s operational costs would eventually increase by $34 million a year to staff and run the new prison. But Frakes projected that he could reduce that rise by about $19.5 million a year by repurposing two other state prisons to lower custody levels, thus reducing staff costs.
Under his proposal, the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln would become a minimum-security prison that would not need the guard towers and control rooms now necessary there to guard maximum- and medium-security inmates. And the Work Ethic Camp at McCook would become a 200-bed community corrections center, also downgrading its custody level.
Those two changes, Frakes said, would leave the increase in operating costs at about $14.5 million a year.
Nebraska’s prison populations have been above 140% of capacity — the level at which the federal government typically intervenes — for more than a decade. But state leaders have resisted new construction, instead seeking to reduce the overcrowding via sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration as recommended by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments.
But that effort has failed, and Frakes said Monday that a new prison is needed to keep pace with the expanding state and prison population.
The new prison, and other expansions already in the works, would leave the state’s prisons at 110% of capacity, he said.
The state had considered having a private firm build a new prison, then lease it back to the state. But Frakes said that after further digging into the “lease-purchase” proposals, he found that Nebraska would be spending about $400 million more over 30 years than if a new prison was built through traditional means — by seeking bids, and having the state own it.
The prison chief acknowledged that the department’s initial inquiries with communities between Omaha and Lincoln found several that weren’t interested in hosting a prison. But he said the state now needs a smaller footprint —160 acres versus more than 300 acres — and he’s hoping that over a six- to eight-month selection process next year, that a good site can be chosen.
“I hope we’ll find this perfectly flat piece of Nebraska,” Frakes said, showing reporters a drawing of a 2,000-bed prison he helped plan and open in the Washington state in 2008.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a key legislator on corrections issues, said he has a lot of questions about the proposed new prison. He said he remains convinced that the answer to prison overcrowding is not just building, but also looking at sentencing reform and other steps that are alternatives to incarceration.