LINCOLN — It’s been more than two decades since Nebraska last picked a site for a new prison, and officials in communities between Omaha and Lincoln say the process is already underway for a much-discussed 1,600-bed facility.
Officials from Waverly, Wahoo and Ashland said they’ve been approached in recent months and asked whether they would be interesting in hosting the prison, which could cost $250 million to build and require 450 workers. There are indications that Fremont was also approached.
Interviews with officials in those communities, and others, indicate that it could be a tough sell to find a willing host.
“It would be a very hard push (here),” said Waverly Mayor Mike Werner, who met with state representatives. “This town is about residential growth; we have a school district that is growing. We don’t believe it would fit well.”
The mayor of Ashland, which sits about halfway between the state’s two largest cities along Interstate 80, also expressed doubts.
“They haven’t provided enough details yet,” Mayor Richard Grauerholz said. “(But) I think there are better places for it.”
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes made it clear last week that a decision on building a new prison, and what kind of prison to build and where to build it, will be coming in the next few months.
Nebraska has the second-worst prison overcrowding problem in the country.
And after watching a 2015 law aimed at reducing that crowding — via alternatives to prison and shorter sentences — fail to make a dent, the state is firmly focused on a “significant” prison construction project, the prison director said.
Recently, a prison consultant projected that the male inmate population will to continue to increase, at roughly 2.5% a year, over the next decade.
With prisons already holding 1,800 more inmates than they were designed to house, it’s time to do something.
Earlier this year, Corrections made a formal “request for information” from private contractors for ideas about building a prison with 1,600 beds, which would be almost twice as big as the Tecumseh State Prison, which is the state’s largest at 960 beds.
Frakes, in testimony before a state legislative committee, made it clear that the state wouldn’t be looking for another rural community like Tecumseh — a farm town of 1,680 people an hour’s drive from both Lincoln and Omaha — for the state’s next prison project.
Tecumseh was selected as the site of Nebraska’s last big prison project in 1998 after several cities, including McCook, North Platte and Scottsbluff-Gering, applied and were graded on factors including community support, economic need and availability of labor. Then-State Corrections Director Harold Clarke made the final decision, picking Tecumseh because it was closer to potential workers and to most inmates’ families.
Frakes, on Thursday and in the past, said picking a prison site based on the potential for economic development was a popular practice in the ’90s, but not anymore.
Since it opened in 2011, the Tecumseh prison has struggled to find enough workers, resulting in staff shortages and high overtime expenses.
“(A new state prison) has to be somewhere where it can be staffed,” Frakes said.
That would seem to point to a site in or near Omaha, where there are already three prisons. Omaha has already been providing corrections officers to fill workforce shortages at other prisons, sending 70 to 80 corrections officers a day to Tecumseh and about 30 to Lincoln.
But Frakes has also mentioned that communities between Omaha and Lincoln might be considered because they are close enough for workers to commute.
And the interviews confirm that some of those towns have been contacted, though representatives of Sarpy County, Gretna and Bellevue said they have not.
The state already owns about 320 acres of land next to the existing Lincoln Correctional Center, on the southwest edge of the capital city, that could be a potential prison site.
But a 384-bed prison addition is currently rising in that area, presenting concerns about whether enough staff can be hired in Lincoln.
Frakes said he was confident that he would be able to because it’s a new facility. But he added that there are other competing job opportunities in the capital and that staffing problems haven’t arisen at prisons in Omaha, York and McCook.
The corrections director said the state is still “crunching numbers” to determine whether the state would finance a prison in the traditional way, by allocating $250 million, or opt for a lease-purchase arrangement, in which Nebraska would pay perhaps $20 million a year to lease a prison built by a private contractor. The state would own the facility at the end of the lease period, spreading out the expense.
Frakes said the next step for the state would be to produce a program statement outlining its plans, which would take 90 to 120 days. He estimated that it might cost $35 million a year to staff and operate a 1,600-bed prison, making the annual expense of a leased prison above $50 million a year.
“No matter how you look at it, it’s a lot of money,” he said.
At least one state senator, Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said he would like to explore other, less expensive options, such as adopting more sentencing reforms to lower the number of inmates needing prison and building facilities smaller than 1,600 beds.
Under questioning by Lathrop on Thursday, Frakes acknowledged that even building 1,600 new prison beds would not resolve the state’s overcrowding because some of the new cells — perhaps 300 to 400 beds — would be used to replace antiquated housing units at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
“The Penitentiary is at the far end of its last stand,” he said.
So there are still a lot of decisions to be made, including where to locate a prison.
From Tecumseh, you get comments of caution.
Johnson County Board member Ted Evans of Tecumseh said he supported the prison project there and continues to support it, though there were unexpected expenses — to pay for public defenders for inmates and autopsies for deceased prisoners — that weren’t revealed two decades ago.
Each year, Johnson County budgets about $20,000 in local tax dollars for expenses related to the Tecumseh prison.
Two years ago, the county got the Legislature to pass a law that makes the state cover the county’s expenses in the event of a major prison riot and multiple court cases, but that aid is triggered only after those expenses rise above about $228,000 a year.
A recent murder trial associated with a 2017 riot at the Tecumseh prison cost the county about $200,000 — short of the amount that triggers state aid — and Johnson County had to use inheritance tax funds, normally reserved for special projects like new bridges, to pay off the bills.
Around Tecumseh, there are mixed feelings.
Some feel that larger nearby communities, like Syracuse, saw more benefits, including new residents.
“Any time you have something like that built, it’s got to help your community,” Evans said. “Overall, it’s been a good thing. But I may be in the minority.”