LINCOLN — Here’s a record Nebraska leaders didn’t want to set: a new high for prison overcrowding.

On Monday, state prisons held 5,515 inmates, the most in history and a surprising landmark in light of several efforts to reduce overcrowding.

“I hope it’s an anomaly,” State Corrections Director Scott Frakes told a panel of state lawmakers.

It means that state prisons are holding 2,140 more inmates than they were designed to handle — about two prisons’ worth — and are at 163 percent of capacity, the second-worst overcrowding in the nation. It also casts even more doubt on whether the state can fend off a civil rights lawsuit from the ACLU of Nebraska and meet a July 2020 deadline to reduce overcrowding to 140 percent of capacity or else start paroling hundreds of prisoners.

Frakes told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that there’s little his department can do when the number of inmates entering his prisons far exceeds those leaving on parole or upon completing criminal sentences.

“We went a long time in Nebraska without investing in the corrections system,” he said. “We’re paying the price for that.”

The state last made a major expansion of its prison system in 2001, when the 960-bed Tecumseh State Prison opened. Corrections veterans have often said the lack of expansion is to blame for the overcrowding and related problems, such as high staff turnover.

Frakes said nothing fully explains the recent rise in overcrowding. Still, the number of inmates being paroled has declined, and the number who return to prison for violations while on parole and supervised release has increased.

What is clear is that a major sentencing reform law passed in 2015, Legislative Bill 605, hasn’t worked to reduce overcrowding. The Council of State Governments, which helped craft the plan, had projected that the prison population would have declined to about 4,500 by now, about 1,000 less than the current population. The organization estimated that the plan would save Nebraska from building $300 million in new prisons.

Instead, on Monday, Frakes was pitching the latest prison construction proposal, a $49 million prison addition in Lincoln that would create a 384-bed wing for the state’s worst-behaving, highest-security inmates.

He said the addition, which Gov. Pete Ricketts included in his budget, is needed because current units that house maximum-security inmates lack modern steps to control and isolate them from other inmates. Such inmates, Frakes said, were to blame for two deadly riots at the Tecumseh prison. They spread violence and engage in extortion, he added, preventing the 90 percent of inmates who behave well from achieving their rehabilitation goals.

The state has slowly moved to add more prison beds in recent years. A 100-bed minimum-security dorm opened in 2017, and a 160-bed addition that is primarily for female inmates is scheduled to open next month.

But Frakes said the proposed 384-bed addition at the Lincoln Correctional Center, which would open in 2022, and a 100-bed addition planned to open in 2021 at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, would not get the state below 140 percent of capacity. That is the line at which federal courts view overcrowding as problematic.

Senators on the Appropriations Committee urged Frakes to examine the sudden spike in inmates to see if it’s a long-term trend or a short-term blip.

Chief Deputy Douglas County Attorney Brenda Beadle said prosecutors were not to blame for the overcrowding, even though criminal filings in her county have increased 34 percent since 2015. She said they are just following the law. She pointed out that Nebraska had the ninth-fewest prison beds per capita in the nation as of 2016 and that it incarcerates inmates at a lower rate than any of its neighboring states.

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said the prison system isn’t doing enough to prepare inmates for release on parole. She said that 927 state inmates are currently past their parole eligibility dates and that as many as 308 of them haven’t been released because they were still waiting for the required rehabilitation programs.

Frakes disputed that, saying inmates are denied release on parole for many other reasons — such as failing a class or refusing to complete it — not just a lack of rehabilitation programs.

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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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