Debate in Nebraska Legislature over the state’s overcrowded prisons

The Nebraska Legislature discussed prison overcrowding today, and what it plans to do about it.
Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 8:15 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The state seems prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to replace the state penitentiary, but studies -- including the state’s own -- say it won’t be enough.

The state’s study says Nebraska’s prison population will jump from 5,800 inmates to 7,400 by 2030 -- that’s within seven years. It will take five years to build a replacement for the penitentiary, which would hold about 1,500 inmates -- meaning by 2030, there are 1,500 inmates with nowhere to go unless something changes.

“The Nebraska State Penitentiary should be closed down, not replaced,” said Diane Amdor, staff attorney with Nebraska Appleseed. “The state should stop investing in expansions of the excessive physical infrastructure of our criminal legal system.”

“The Tecumseh facility still remains under a staffing emergency, despite positive gains during the past year,” said Doug Koebernick, inspector general with Nebraska’s Department of Corrections. “So we’ve seen some progress but there are still concerns, and I just want to make sure everyone is aware of that.”

The replacement prison for the aging state pen comes with a $335 million price tag. It’s unclear if there are buildings that would still be useful on the property -- or if everything must come down.

“This project can no longer be delayed,” said Diane Sabatka, interim director for the Department of Corrections. “As you may recall, NSP recently lost a housing unit due to a water main break, causing 140 inmates to be relocated. Those beds will not be usable for the foreseeable future. This is an example of the aging infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Nebraska’s chief Supreme Court justice offered this piece of the puzzle when it comes to the rehabilitation aspect.

“On any given day in Nebraska, there are approximately 14,000 adults and approximately 2,500 juveniles on probation,” said Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican. “The average annual cost of supervision of an adult probationer is $5,500 per year. Compare that to the cost of incarceration in the Nebraska prison system which is approximately $42,000 per year.”