The writer is director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
Gov. Pete Ricketts recruited me to transform the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, and I’m honored to be part of a reform-focused administration.
Last year, I released a strategic plan to build capacity at corrections facilities, create a culture of rehabilitation and reentry, and demonstrate accountability to the taxpayers.
The Department of Correctional Services came under intense scrutiny under a previous administration for a series of incidents in which inmates committed serious offenses while on furlough or after being prematurely discharged from restrictive housing. The Legislature then convened an investigative committee, which culminated in a criminal justice reform package, Legislative Bill 605, to address the inmate population issue.
My strategic plan addresses inmate capacity by improving core services to increase operational capacity. Many of the department’s facilities were designed simply to warehouse people. We must update our community corrections facilities to provide space for gender-based programming, treatment and support, which are key to rehabilitation and re-entry success.
In front of the Legislature is a $26 million proposal to update and expand the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, which would achieve these objectives.
I’ve addressed questions about investing in the community corrections center versus leasing Lincoln’s Airpark or expanding an Omaha facility, as some have suggested.
Our approach of building programming and treatment space in an existing facility saves taxpayers nearly $1 million a year in reduced operating costs, improves core services to increase operational capacity and provides separate gender-based housing.
The practice of co-ed correctional facilities in Nebraska needs to end. Female inmates have high rates of past sexual, physical and mental abuse. Co-ed arrangements can cause ongoing anxiety and complicate reentry efforts. This proposal provides our female population with a community approach guided by trauma-informed care and makes it more likely that they will successfully re-enter society.
Adding an 11th facility, like Lincoln’s Airpark, will not improve the quality of operations in existing facilities, and it drives up costs. Airpark also poses a security risk due to a linear floor plan that is broken up into small spaces. The poor lines of sight require increased security (staff and technology) and expose corrections workers to unnecessary risks.
Moreover, Airpark needs extensive renovation: The roof is failing and the HVAC system is at the end of its life expectancy. The building doesn’t meet energy codes, electrical codes, plumbing codes or life-safety codes.
Some suggest Airpark could house 200 inmates, but when Lancaster County Corrections used this building as a jail, it managed a maximum of 134 inmates with short-term sentences — and ultimately built a new building. In contrast to a short-term jail facility, community custody centers house inmates for up to three years, with a full scope of programming. A $26 million investment at the community corrections center would turn a crowded facility into a 560-bed community custody prison with adequate programming and support space.
There also are good reasons to invest in the Lincoln facility instead of the Community Corrections Center in Omaha. Both facilities can benefit from improvements, but the need is greater at the Lincoln facility. The Omaha site is in a 100-year floodplain next to a levee with documented flooding less than five years ago. The facility is operating above design capacity, and a smaller population would help reduce the tension associated with crowding. The expansion at the Lincoln facility would reduce operating capacity at Omaha by 6 percent.
Reforming the Department of Correctional Services is a comprehensive process — but we are making progress. Our sentencing calculation project is in the final stages, LB 605 reforms are under way, we are aggressive in our staff recruitment and retention efforts, and are working to address the programming and treatment needs of inmates in our care.
Expanding the community corrections center in Lincoln is the first step in the overall strategic plan for construction. While we will need more capital construction investments, corrections is about more than just housing — it’s about programming that allows for successful reentry into the community.