LINCOLN — Lack of progress in reducing overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons is spawning a proposal to plan for a new 300-bed work-release facility in Omaha.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a leading legislator on corrections issues, said he’ll introduce a bill when the State Legislature convenes this week to begin planning a community corrections facility, which could cost upward of $40 million.

As of Friday, state prisons held 2,006 more inmates than their design capacity of 3,535 inmates. Nebraska’s prisons are currently the second-most overcrowded in the nation at 157% of capacity, trailing only Alabama, which is under federal order to address its overcrowding problem.

“We’re at a crisis level,” Lathrop said. “We need to be on a path to solve it.”

The senator’s bill would see only planning money at this time, perhaps $50,000 to $100,000. But a multimillion-dollar prison project could compete moneywise with efforts to pass a multiyear property tax relief bill.

Still, groups including the Omaha Police union and the union that represents corrections officers have increased calls recently for more prison construction. They maintain that crowded prisons are not only less safe, but make it harder to rehabilitate inmates, further threatening public safety when those inmates are released.

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Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has urged lawmakers to devote the state’s excess tax revenue for property tax reductions this year, said that his administration is looking at “a variety of different ideas” to reduce prison overcrowding besides new construction and that details would be coming later.

“What we’ve been doing is asking for the additional capital improvements to our current facilities to be able to expand capacity and add new beds,” Ricketts told The World-Herald on Friday. “We’re always going to be evaluating what the needs are and expanding (prison) capacity as appropriate.”

Overcrowding has plagued Nebraska’s prisons for years, and the state is now defending itself against a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleges that overcrowding has created dangerous conditions for prisoners and prison staff.

In 2015, state lawmakers passed a series of sentencing reforms in hopes of reducing overcrowded conditions. But projections of a 1,100-inmate decline in state prison populations by now failed to materialize. Instead, overcrowding has worsened, hitting record highs in 2019.

Dozens of inmates sleep on plastic floor cots in day rooms at the state’s Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, which is holding about three times as many inmates as its design capacity. Cells there and at other prisons are being double-bunked to handle the excess inmates.

The Omaha Police Officers Association this fall released an analysis showing that Nebraska had the fewest prison beds per capita of any of its neighboring states. The state, the union said, had 23.5% fewer prison inmates per capita than the average of adjacent states, but its overcrowding was 49% higher.

“We clearly have a capacity problem, not an incarceration problem,” said union President Tony Conner. “We’re too low with the amount of prison beds we have.”

Conner said it would take the addition of 3,100 new prison beds for Nebraska to match the regional average for prison beds per capita.

To be sure, the Ricketts administration has embarked on prison expansion projects, targeting $151 million for five prison additions over the past five years, all in Lincoln.

A 100-bed dormitory and a 160-bed work-release facility for women have opened in the past two years. A 100-bed dorm is under construction at the State Penitentiary, and work has started on a 64-bed facility that will house elderly and mentally ill inmates, as well as a larger kitchen and cafeteria to serve nearby prisons.

And, earlier this year, lawmakers approved an addition to the Lincoln Correctional Center that will house 384 beds for the state’s worst-behaving inmates.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, in a statement, said that with the additions, the prison system has enough community custody beds at this time.

But Lathrop said that the state needs to do more. The current prison additions, when completed, he said, would still leave state prisons overcrowded.

The need for planning more prisons, Lathrop said, became apparent this fall when Frakes told a legislative committee that state prisons were only 150 inmates away from being totally full.

The senator said that expansion of the community corrections prison in Omaha, which houses inmates who work during the day, was recommended in a 2014 master plan developed for the state prison system by a prison consultant, Dewberry Architects Inc., but was never built. Lathrop said that such work-release facilities help better prepare inmates for a return to society.

The state is facing a deadline of sorts. As of July 1, the governor, by state law, will be forced to declare a prison overcrowding “emergency” if prison overcrowding doesn’t drop to at least 140% of capacity, a figure no one expects the state to achieve. The emergency will force the State Board of Parole to consider releasing more inmates on parole — if they don’t present a danger to society — to reduce the crowding.

Does the state have the money to build another prison?

Gering Sen. John Stinner, who heads the Legislature’s budget committee, said the state revenue is exceeding forecasts so far this fiscal year, which began in July. But it remains to be seen how the governor and other senators will respond to increased prison construction.

“There’s competing interests for the money, there’s no question about that,” Stinner said.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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