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'I think everyone's concerned about placement,' union VP says of potential new prison

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Scott Frakes

Scott Frakes

Jerry Brittain is well versed on all the unknowns surrounding a potential new prison with a $270 million price tag, pitched to state lawmakers by Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes.

Among the biggest: Will lawmakers, who passed on the project last year, decide to put the money for it in the budget this year? If they do, where will the prison be built? And will it mean the end of the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, which reportedly needs $220 million of repairs?

"I know what our needs are," said Brittain, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police 88, the union representing prison employees. "But when you're asking for all that money it can be daunting for some people."

He said he sees it like a highway. Just because there are a lot of people on the highway doesn't mean you close it down because it's expensive to maintain.

"You've still got to meet that need. And that's kind of where we're at here," Brittain said.

In fact, even if a new prison is built, it isn't projected to solve the state's overcrowding problem, a point Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, questioned Frakes about at a hearing in February, after acknowledging that senators allocated the money in their preliminary budget, in addition to $5 million that was in the budget last year for planning.

"So we're going to spend $275 million of taxpayer money and at the end of eight years we're going to need another 1,300 beds? That means if I'm going to plan for 20 years ... we probably need $1 billion. Is that what we want to do with taxpayer money? Something has to happen here. Somebody has to stand up and say this is nonsensical," the senator said.

Stinner said replacing the penitentiary isn't nonsensical. The state would pick up a few more beds and maybe see additional efficiencies with a new prison.

"But we're not addressing the problem," he said.

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Over the past seven years, the state funded an additional 880 beds, but Nebraska still has the most overcrowded prison system in the country. While other states saw prison populations decline, thanks to sentencing reform, Nebraska's went up, Stinner said.

He said the state needs to come up with better solutions, because "throwing taxpayer dollars at prison cells isn't an efficient way — or a good way — to use tax dollars."

Last week, on the heels of stronger-than-expected state revenues, Gov. Pete Ricketts called a news conference to push the project, along with his pitch for lawmakers to deliver on a large canal project and tax relief.

In a weekly column last month, he said: "We are well beyond slapping a Band-Aid on the rundown State Penitentiary. It is my intention to replace and mothball the old Nebraska State Penitentiary."

The plan initially had been for a new prison to be an additional facility, rather than a replacement.

But when Frakes went before the Appropriations Committee in early February, he was asking for a 1,512-bed, multi-custody facility to replace the penitentiary and address the state's prison space being "underbuilt for 40 years." 

"It wasn't that we had all this capacity and then we worked to fill it up. It's that we have always not had enough beds consistent with the number of people incarcerated," he said.

Frakes said whether the state was looking at the total prison population of less than 3,000 in 1980, or 5,500 today, the design capacity always has been well below the need.

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"Which is why we have that stat of being one of the most overcrowded in the nation," he said.

Frakes said his dream of one day turning the penitentiary into a vocational training school unfortunately has fallen apart. He now thinks the facility is beyond repairing.

The penitentiary is designed for 818 inmates and last year averaged about 1,290 daily. Frakes told senators it could house up to 1,400 people, but "it doesn't operate well."

Opponents of the plan to build a new prison, including former state ombudsman Marshall Lux, are quick to point out that, while the penitentiary opened in 1869, many elements of it, including living units and administrative areas, were redone in the late 1970s and opened in 1980.

He said the right answer for Nebraska is to do two things: Sentencing reform to reduce the system’s population in the future; and prison reform to reduce the number of people being held in maximum-security facilities. Instead, he said the state should add more community-custody beds as an alternative placement for non-violent offenders.

At the Appropriations Committee hearing, Frakes said it would take considerable resources to bring the penitentiary up to a "usable level" to house inmates there in the future. There are electrical, heating, water and sewer system issues. He said technological upgrades and access for people with disabilities also are needed.

"Replacement of the State Penitentiary is something that can't wait," he said.

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Frakes said the one-year delay and inflation already have added to the cost of the project.

He said the Department of Correctional Services has identified possible sites for a new prison west of Lincoln, north and south of Omaha and within the Interstate 80 corridor and signed an option on one. He wouldn't say where or speak to rumors that the Fremont area also was up for consideration.

Brittain, the union vice president, said: "Certainly we're going to keep tabs on that. But the closer it is to the I-80 corridor between Omaha and Lincoln the better."

There's been a lot of speculation about location since talk about a new prison began, he said. The union supports the Omaha or Lincoln area, where the bulk of its employees come from now, where inmates likely would be closer to family support and where there are more programming providers than a more rural area.

Lancaster, Douglas and Dodge counties were among the initial sites identified with potential available and viable properties.

Laura Strimple, chief of staff for the department, said as the site identification process continues there is a possibility that landowners will make offers that fit the necessary criteria, which includes proximity to a metro area that can support the workforce, between 100-160 total acres, near utilities and emergency services, plus close access for family, volunteers and community support.

But, to protect the confidentiality of the site identification and property negotiation process, Strimple said, the department isn't identifying areas coming on and off the list.

Asked if any other preliminary work was being done on the project, she said the department is working on site selection and optioning of potential land, plus the initial design of the replacement facility for the penitentiary, which Frakes said Wednesday was about 50% completed.

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Strimple said the intention is to close the penitentiary if a new facility is built, which would take a few years.

Until the relocation of all inmates at the penitentiary, she said the facility will remain operational, and the department will continue to prioritize necessary repairs to ensure its safe and continued operation.

Asked if the department has a plan for how it would decide where a new prison would be located — whether it would be a decision Frakes would make alone or with input — she said officials aren't at that point yet.

Brittain said the union members want to have a voice in the discussion, and they've received a promise from the state that it will "have all parties at the table to make the best decision."

"I think everyone's concerned about placement. We saw what happened if we can't staff a place," he said. 

He said he sees Tecumseh State Correctional Institution as a cautionary tale. Johnson County's population was expected to explode when the state opened the medium/maximum-security prison in 2001. And that just wasn't what happened, he said.

While there are some dedicated employees from the area working in Tecumseh, Brittain said the prison relies on busing workers there from Omaha, which isn't ideal.

As for the penitentiary, he said he thinks everybody agrees it needs to be refurbished at least — even before seeing the engineering study released by the Department of Correctional Services in January outlining deficiencies and needed repairs.

If the experts say it's going to cost too much to refurbish the penitentiary and the state does close it, he said, the union would want a new prison to be built closer to Lincoln so it's easier for those staff to transition to the new facility.

It was a point Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward made at the Appropriations Committee hearing.

"If we were to build a new prison in Lincoln, Nebraska, or in proximity to Lincoln, Nebraska, isn't it more prudent to keep the people who we have that are here that can work in that facility than build something in Fremont or Omaha or wherever?" he asked Frakes. 

Kolterman said the workforce already is in place.

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In an interview with the Journal Star, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Eric Thompson, an economist, said if there are roughly 465 people working at the penitentiary with experience in that work, it might be wise to factor that into the decision.

"They have to think about a lot of things when they pick the best location. But one thing they might want to think about is picking a location where those folks have the option to keep doing that work."

It also would help the department avoid the need to train a lot of new prison workers, he said.

"I think that would be a positive for the economy."

That said, losing the penitentiary in Lincoln likely wouldn't have a large negative impact on the city's economy, Thompson said. Not in the way losing a large manufacturer could hurt the momentum of the economy.

In the case of public-sector activity, including corrections, that's less clear, he said.

"Whenever there's a public-sector investment, the question I always have is how certain are we that it's necessary?" Thompson said. "If you think about roads, sometimes we build bigger roads than we really need to have. With any public-sector investment you don't really have a free-market test about whether the investment makes sense. So you want to make sure the public sector is thinking very carefully about whether the investment is worth spending."

He said if Lincoln does lose the penitentiary and isn't chosen as the site for the new prison, it could lead to slower population growth if workers move closer to a new prison elsewhere.

But, given the current labor market, prison workers likely could find work elsewhere quickly, he said. It could, however, mean lower wages, at least initially, or the need for workers to retrain for new jobs.

Brittain said if a new prison is built and it is located somewhere besides Lincoln, some workers may go to work at other Department of Correctional Services locations in Lincoln, try to get work at the Lancaster County Jail, commute or move closer to the new prison.

"We certainly don't want to see anybody displaced or walk away from a career. Any time there's a loss of experience it has negative impact for us," he said.

Brittain said the union will be watching and working closely with the state to provide feedback and speak on behalf of the employees.

"I think the whole state is going to be paying close attention to where this new facility is put up," he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger

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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

Related to this story

A 53-year-old inmate at the State Penitentiary died Sunday, according to the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

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