LINCOLN — State officials unveiled a new, 100-bed inmate dormitory on Thursday that they said would not only reduce prison overcrowding but also decrease repeat crimes.
The 100-bed concrete dorm, which already holds 46 low-risk work-release inmates, was the result of state lawmakers’ calls for quick action to reduce prison overcrowding that has plagued Nebraska for a decade.
Officials said the new facility at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln has already slightly relieved overcrowding and could help further by better preparing inmates for release into the community, making them less likely to commit more crimes.
“This is another step in how we are changing the direction of corrections,” said Gov. Pete Ricketts.
As of Thursday, state prisons held about 1,900 more inmates than their design capacity, or about 157 percent of capacity. That is down from more than 160 percent of capacity recently, when Nebraska’s stood as the second-most overcrowded prison system in the country.
Overcrowding was a major impetus for the federal lawsuit filed recently by the ACLU of Nebraska. It was also the reason the state enacted a series of sentencing reforms, crafted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, to divert more nonviolent offenders into probation and county jails, and release them earlier on supervised release.
But the reforms have had little impact on overcrowding so far, and under a recently passed state law, prison populations must decline to at least 140 percent of capacity by the year 2020 or an emergency will be declared, triggering the release of inmates awaiting parole.
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Thursday that he cannot predict when the state might reach that 140 percent mark. But he said the 100-bed dorm, along with a 160-bed addition in Lincoln for female prisoners expected to be completed in 2019, should reduce overcrowding to 147 percent.
This year, the State Legislature authorized $75 million for prison expansion, mainly for a prison addition for elderly and mentally ill inmates in Lincoln. Ricketts said Thursday that he’s still optimistic that the changes crafted by the council will eventually begin to reduce overcrowding and that additional steps — such as eliminating mandatory minimum sentences — are not needed.
The 100-bed dorm cost $1.8 million, which was about $250,000 under projections.
It will house inmates nearing the end of their sentences who work jobs during the day, then return to sleep in a large, open room that features steel bunk beds, lockers and molded plastic lounge chairs. About 93 percent of prison inmates complete their sentences and return to society.
One hundred more beds, Frakes said, mean that more inmates can take jobs before being released on parole, earning money to pay for living expenses on the outside.
Such transitional facilities are essential in helping inmates avoid a return to a life of crime, he said.
“It leads to hope, it leads to better behavior, that ultimately leads to better outcomes,” Frakes said.
He said Thursday that another stop-gap measure to reduce overcrowding — using county jails to house some state inmates — has been extended into January. About 88 inmates are in county jails now, Frakes said.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said that while any effort to reform the state’s “crisis-riddled” prison system is welcome, updating facilities is not enough. More steps, she said, are needed to address shortages of mental health and medical care, lack of staff and overuse of solitary confinement.