LINCOLN — Some state senators still aren’t sold on the plan backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts to build a $26 million addition to a state prison in Lincoln.

State Sens. Heath Mello and Bob Krist, both of Omaha, were among those on Wednesday who questioned whether that project, which would add 160 new prison beds in three years, is enough to stave off a federal lawsuit over chronic prison overcrowding.

Both lawmakers asked Nebraska Corrections Department officials to consider other, shorter-term options to reduce overcrowding sooner, such as building modular housing for inmates and using apartment buildings for work-release programs. Building more beds in Omaha rather than Lincoln should also be considered, they said.

“I’m still searching for a short-term answer if it’s going to take three years for the first new bed,” said Mello, the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

He commented after a more than two-hour public hearing with Corrections Department Director Scott Frakes over the agency’s request for the $26 million prison expansion at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln.

The department is also asking for $18 million in additional operating funding over the next two years to deal with increased lodging and medical costs associated with overcrowding; to repair the Tecumseh State Prison, the site of a deadly riot in May; and to continue using county jails to house about 160 state inmates.

Nebraska’s 10 state prisons have been overcrowded for years and hold about 1,900 more inmates than their design capacity, or 157 percent of capacity. Overcrowding would be at 164 percent if not for the use of county jails.

The last time the state approved new prison construction was 1999, for 960-bed Tecumseh.

This year, Frakes and Ricketts, who hired Frakes a year ago, proposed the addition in Lincoln that would consolidate community custody and work-release beds for female inmates and expand space for rehabilitation programs and food service, calling it the “first step” in addressing overcrowding.

But senators and especially a special legislative committee overseeing Corrections that is led by Krist have been skeptical.

The net gain in beds via the $26 million project is about 100, and they won’t be available for three years. Meanwhile, a package of sentencing reforms adopted last year in conjunction with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments will take five years to kick in and then would reduce overcrowding only to 139 percent of capacity.

While Mello and others seemed to be more comfortable with the $26 million expansion after hearing from Frakes on Wednesday, they also expressed an interest in doing more, sooner, to reduce prison overcrowding. The ACLU of Nebraska has threatened to sue over conditions that it says amount to cruel and unusual punishment if progress isn’t made.

But Frakes, during his testimony, defended the plan.

He said much more study is needed before launching additional prison construction. Frakes said overcrowding lawsuits typically win if it can be proven that a state has shown “deliberate indifference” to crowding and prison conditions. In Nebraska, he said, there are a multitude of improvements underway, including expanding mental health treatment, establishing inmate councils and bulking up re-entry planning for inmates to return to society.

The “best value” is the Lincoln project, he said, which not only increases capacity there but consolidates female work-release beds in one location and improves a prison that has inadequate space for programs, visitors and good service.

The corrections director, meanwhile, said he would get back to the Appropriations Committee about other alternatives.

The committee took no action on advancing the budget requests pending more information on other steps that could be taken. Mello said the budget proposals will also be aired in front of the special legislative committee at a later date.

Syracuse Sen. Dan Watermeier, whose district includes the Tecumseh prison, introduced his proposal, Legislative Bill 733, to the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. It would give the department an extra $2.5 million to provide bonuses or other incentives for veteran workers.

The department has struggled with high turnover and large numbers of vacant positions. Tecumseh, in the rural southeast, has had the biggest problems, with 13 percent of its positions unfilled as of December.

A recent survey of department employees by the Office of Inspector General for Corrections found that 68 percent said that providing raises for longevity was the best answer for addressing the high turnover rates.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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