Corrections director testifies about building new prison

Lawmakers are weighing prison reform and infrastructure as the state is in an overcrowding emergency and the Nebraska State Penitentiary has been recommended for demolition.
Friday, February 4th 2022, 1:26 PM CST

LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - This legislative session, lawmakers are weighing prison reform and infrastructure as the state is in an overcrowding emergency and the Nebraska State Penitentiary has been recommended for demolition.

Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spoke to legislators in the appropriations committee about what he thinks should happen.

“It makes sense to build new and start fresh,” Frakes said.

Senators said it would cost $220 million to demolish and rebuild the Nebraska State Penitentiary in the same spot. It would cost $270 million to build a new prison in a new location. Frakes said the new prison would be a better investment, but lawmakers said they’re not going to be making a decision right away.

“I don’t think anybody here is not willing to put dollars into having a good prison system,” committee chair Sen. John Stinner said. “It’s just how do we do it.”

Stinner said its important prison reform is brought into the conversation, as right now the corrections system is at 150% capacity.

“Wouldn’t it be prudent to look at reforms?” Stinner asked. “Maybe we’ll make progress then make a decision.”

He said if no progress is made on reforms, data shows it would only take eight years for the new prison to be overcrowded. But, Frakes said the state can’t wait too much longer, that if nothing is done, there will continue to be emergencies at the state penitentiary. He referenced a pipe break in the fall of 2021 that led to water being shut off at NSP for about 36 hours.

“We couldn’t provide showers, we only had porta-potties, we had no running water,” Frakes said. “We were trying to deliver water bottles so inmates would have drinking water, so my concern around the pen is not so much that we can’t respond and fix problems, but at some point, a high-security population reacts and causes problems.”

Frakes said refurbishing and rebuilding NSP wouldn’t be easy because they can’t remove inmates for the five-to-seven years it could take.

“You talk about going into the middle of a prison, building a new prison unit on the current ballfield, so there’s no recreation, then moving one group of inmates in, tearing down their unit, and at the same time we’re supposed to provide programming, feeding, recreation and all of those components and not have people access tools, access building materials, or worse of all escape,” Frakes said. “I can’t sign on for that, I think that’s bad business.”

Senators were also concerned about the location of the new prison if the state goes that route. Senator Anna Wishart asked Frakes about rumors that it could be built in Fremont, he would neither confirm nor deny that. Senator Mark Kolterman asked how the prison would be staffed if moved out of Lincoln.

“I don’t know how many people would want to move to Omaha or Fremont to keep their jobs,” Kolterman said. “We’ve invested a lot of money in jobs, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to build away from our job force.”

Frakes said NDCS has identified several potential locations near Omaha and west of Lincoln.

Kolterman also said he’s heard rumors NDCS will build in a community that doesn’t want prison to be built in their backyards.

“I have a desire that we’ll land where a majority of everyone involved agrees,” Frakes said. “There’s not going to be a site where everybody is happy though.”