Just a few years ago, Nebraska administrators and lawmakers were trying everything possible to avoid having to sink state money into building a new prison.
Things have changed.
Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Tuesday the state is considering a public-private partnership to build a new, 1,600-bed prison between Lincoln and Omaha to help deal with overcrowding and staffing issues. It could even have potential to expand by hundreds of beds.
That would be one-third bigger than the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, designed for 960.
Nebraska's prison population stood at 5,660 on Tuesday, about 158% of design capacity. In the fourth quarter of 2019, the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln had the highest number of inmates at 1,354, despite being built for 718.
The department employs about 2,200 people.
With the proposal, Frakes said the state could operate the prison, but a private company could build it and the state could pay for the construction over a lease period of 20 to 25 years. It's the same type of public-private partnership the state is using to build a new $58.6 million office building and parking garage at 17th and K streets near the Capitol. That lease is for 30 years.
The cost of the new prison could be in the $200 million range, or higher, and be some combination of medium- and maximum-custody beds, Frakes said.
The announcement, which Frakes and his staff made to the Journal Star editorial board before releasing it to reporters and the public, has prompted a lot of questions, which the department can't yet answer.
It will use the request for information to get ideas, approaching it with a "very open mind," Frakes said.
He's been contemplating what to do to handle overcrowding over the past year or more, he said, since sentencing and prison reform hasn't been reducing population the way it was expected.
Recent 10-year population projections made by The JFA Institute, a national consulting firm, show the number of prisoners rising to more than 7,300 by 2030.
The Legislature's Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop called the proposal an "illusion of progress."
"We have no way of knowing whether any of this would be constructed," he said. "It's basically an idea ... years away."
If the administration is serious about spending $200 million or more on a new prison, it should hold back on property tax cuts, he said.
Frakes said he realizes such a big idea will take people a little while to digest.
"There's certainly not universal agreement that new construction is needed," Frakes said, but there's enough support with decision makers that "we'll build a prison. That's what I believe."
Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner said although this may be a positive step forward, he stands by his comments last week that sentencing reform is crucial.
"Spending a lot of money on prisons takes away from a lot of other priorities," he said. "But doing nothing is not acceptable."
In a message to his staff, Frakes said this is exactly the right time to pursue the project.
"We continue to attract new recruits through the recently implemented pay raises for protective services staff and the $10,000 hiring/retention bonuses," he said. "We are firing on many cylinders in order to move the agency in the right direction and solve our most critical issues — staffing and bed space."
The department will craft a request for information within the next 30 days, Frakes said, and information gathering will take about 90 days.
The information the department gathers will help make the decision, he said, on whether building a new prison is the best option, how big it should be, where it should be for best staffing opportunities, whether the public-private partnership is the right one, what companies might be potential partners and how much land might be required.
He emphasized a new prison would not be privately run.
“The state has an obligation to operate its own prisons,” he said.
Putting the prison between Lincoln and Omaha would help the department find workers, Frakes said. The idea of building large prisons in rural areas to spur the economy has so far failed, he said.
Frakes could look to award a contract in early 2021, with a new prison opening within 2 1/2 years, he said. The Legislature would have to sign off on the plan and appropriate money in fiscal years 2021-23 to lease the building and staff it.
In the message to staff, Frakes said the request for information would not be "overly prescriptive" to allow potential bidders to do their due diligence in evaluating the current system, identifying current and future needs and providing the best possible information.
It's an exciting opportunity, he said.
"We know that we are challenged by older structures that do not have enough bed space, core service space and programming/activity space," he told staff. "Building a state-of-the-art facility will provide for the types of efficiencies and amenities that will make management of the population safer, easier, and more cost-effective."
Kansas is just completing a new prison in Lansing that will house 1,920 maximum- and medium-security inmates and 512 minimum-security prisoners. It contracted with CoreCivic, one of the country’s two largest private prison companies, for a lease-purchase agreement.
Nebraska Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick said the request for information would provide key information to policymakers about the upfront and ongoing costs, and other challenges of adding prison beds.
Overcrowding in the prisons system has been the most significant issue facing the state's correctional system during the past decade, Koebernick said. It impacts staffing, safety, and appropriate and timely rehabilitation of the men and women who serve time in the system.
"However, it is also vital that the department include my office, senators, state employee unions and others in this process so that this effort to gain information is done in a transparent and open manner," he said, "as well as look at what it will cost to upgrade and renovate our existing facilities that are aging and out of compliance with correctional standards."
ACLU of Nebraska said it is strongly opposed to any plan to try to build out of the current crisis and lock up more and more Nebraskans.
It is suing the department, with a class certification request pending, about systemic prison conditions, including a lack of basic health care and disability accommodations, and prompted by overcrowding and staff shortages.
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