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'You're not addressing the overcrowding problem': Senators grill corrections director on new prison

New penitentiary would cost Nebraska taxpayers $270 million
Posted at 6:52 PM, Feb 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-07 12:45:18-05

LINCOLN, Neb (KMTV) — An effort to build a new prison and replace the state’s oldest one received sharp pushback in a legislative hearing on Thursday.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes, Governor Pete Ricketts and some conservative lawmakers want to build a new prison, replacing the Nebraska State Penitentiary, some parts of which are over 100 years old.

“Systems are building replacement prisons. We’re not the only ones doing it. Prisons wear out and sometimes it makes sense to build new and fresh,” said Frakes.

Frakes laid out his plan to the Appropriations Committee. The new prison would cost the state $270 million, and while that may sound high, Frakes said it would cost $220 million to simply renovate the State Penitentiary.

“I gotta have a facility where the water comes on and the sewers work and those things,” said Frakes. “The ability to make repairs is complicated tenfold by the need to maintain a secure environment.”

Frakes did have the backing of the Omaha police and corrections officers union.

The Nebraska prison system ranks as one of the most overcrowded in America and, simply put, Frakes was grilled by several senators in the hearing about that. There were concerns about Frakes not taking stances on criminal justice reforms, which some believe would solve Nebraska’s prison overpopulation problem.

Senator Tony Vargas pointed to rising inmate numbers, worrying this won’t be the last prison Nebraska builds soon.

“We’re just going to keep building prisons every three to five years, we are, we dramatically have to change something about our prison system,” said Vargas.

Perhaps the sharpest comments came from Chair of the Appropriations Committee John Stinner, a powerful conservative in the Unicameral.

“You’re not addressing the overcrowding problem,” said Stinner.

Stinner said this was a math problem a new prison wouldn’t solve and he pointed to money spent on staff and over 850 new beds, saying the trendlines still haven’t moved, and while a new prison would add a few more beds, it wouldn’t be enough to solve the issue.

“We cannot continue to build. We tried that. I mean, I tried it the last eight years, 880 beds and we’re still in the same place we are now,” said Stinner.

It’s unclear if the committee has enough votes to even bring new prison funding to a full vote of the legislature.

Some senators have also said before the hearing they don’t want to make a decision until a full master facilities study comes out. That report isn’t expected until August, but Frakes said the Unicameral can fund the prison now, and make small adjustments later.

“We have all the flexibility we’re not by that point in time we’re not locked into a position that we cannot move the project in the right direction,” said Frakes.

Stinner also estimates it would take around $1 billion for Nebraska to build its way out of its overcrowding problem.

The site of a new prison is still unknown, but areas in and around Lincoln, Fremont and Omaha have been mentioned as possibilities.

The Nebraska State Penitentiary was originally built in 1869, but most of the its buildings now used were built in the 1980's-1990's.