LINCOLN — Nebraska has set another record for prison overcrowding, and the state corrections director says only 150 more inmates could be safely handled at his facilities.

On Friday, the state’s 10 prisons — already the second-most overcrowded prisons in the nation — held 5,660 prisoners, which is about 400 more inmates than two years ago and about 1,100 more than projected four years ago.

“That’s a significant increase in population,” said State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who has led legislative inquiries into the multiple problems in state prisons.

“Yes it is,” State Corrections Director Scott Frakes responded Friday at a hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Nebraska prisons now hold about 2,107 more inmates than their design capacity of 3,535. The overcrowding has forced dozens of prisoners to sleep on plastic cots on the floor of day rooms and others to double bunk in cells designed for one inmate. It has also meant that short-staffed prisons have less time to focus on rehabilitation programs.

The state also houses 98 inmates in county jails because of the overcrowding, which has spawned a federal lawsuit by the ACLU of Nebraska, which claims that overcrowding has led to substandard medical and mental health care.

The steady prison population increase has come despite efforts to divert more low-level, nonviolent offenders to lower-cost probation programs and problem-solving courts.

Those sentencing reforms were crafted with the assistance of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, which has helped several states reduce prison overcrowding.

But it hasn’t worked in Nebraska. The CSG projected that the state prison population would fall to about 4,560 inmates by now because of the sentencing reforms, but that projection is about 1,100 inmates off.

The CSG also estimated that if the state did nothing, the prison population would be 5,581 by now, which is still lower than last week’s record.

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Frakes said the state has commissioned a new estimate on growth of inmate populations so Nebraska can plan for the future. He said Friday that a combination of factors has led to the explosion in new inmates, including more felons being sent to prison with longer sentences.

Last week, the Omaha police union weighed in, saying the solution is not to enact more sentencing reforms, but rather to build more prison beds.

Compared with its neighboring states, Nebraska has the lowest number of prison beds per 100,000 residents, 183, according to data compiled by the Omaha Police Officers Association.

Tony Conner, the union president, said that to catch up with Iowa, the next lowest state in per-capita prison beds, Nebraska would have to add 700 new prison beds.

To match the regional average, Nebraska would need to build an additional 3,100 beds, which would almost double the state’s prison capacity.

“Nebraska has not built prison bed space at the same rate of our neighbors, and this has not only created overcrowding but also impaired our ability to properly rehabilitate,” Conner said in a press release.

Omaha police, he said, are seeing more and more inmates who were released from prison without the proper rehabilitation programming — programming that overcrowded and understaffed prisons are hard-pressed to provide.

That puts public safety at risk, Conner said.

“The problem that they should be trying to fix is the lack of infrastructure,” he said.

Frakes, in past comments to state lawmakers, has acknowledged that prison construction in Nebraska has lagged, though his agency did not request additional funds this fall for prison expansion in 2020.

The newest major prison in Nebraska opened 18 years ago, when the 960-bed Tecumseh State Prison began housing inmates.

In the past two years, the state has opened a 100-bed dorm and a 160-bed women’s wing at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln.

Three prison expansion projects are underway, all in Lincoln:

  • A 100-bed dorm at the State Penitentiary.
  • A $75 million reception and treatment center that would include a 32-bed nursing home for elderly inmates, a 32-bed secure unit for seriously mentally ill prisoners, and larger kitchen and dining facilities to handle more inmates at two adjacent prisons.
  • A $49 million, 384-bed unit to house the state’s most troublesome, highest-security inmates, replacing a unit at Tecumseh that has been a flashpoint for recent riots.

State budget forecasts indicate a $266 million surplus over the next two years, but Gov. Pete Ricketts and some senators want to use that money to provide property tax relief.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who has been involved in prison issues as a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said Monday that the state needs to solve its current prison problems, which include staffing shortages and excessive overtime, before it considers building new prisons.

“Let’s fix the problems we have now,” she said.

By state law, the state must declare an “overcrowding emergency” if the prison population is not reduced to 140% of capacity by July 2020, an issue that will undoubtedly be a big one in the next legislative session.

Frakes has said he doubts that the deadline will be met and also doubts that not meeting the benchmark will mean the release of hundreds of inmates.

The state is currently more than 700 inmates above 140% of capacity.

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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.

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