Nebraska prison proposal clears big hurdle in Legislature

Nebraska state seal.
Nebraska state seal.(Associated Press)
Published: Apr. 21, 2021 at 5:10 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska inched closer to building a new $230 million prison on Tuesday after lawmakers approved design and planning money for the facility, which would replace the state’s oldest prison.

The measure won final approval despite objections from a few lawmakers who said the state should be spending money on housing, education, mental health services and other priorities rather than the proposed 1,512-bed prison.

The funding includes $14.9 million to help state officials create plans and select a site for a lockup that would house minimum, medium and maximum-security prisoners. It also would cover the cost of an engineering study of the remaining useful life of the 152-year-old Nebraska State Penitentiary. Gov. Pete Ricketts has said the facility is antiquated and needs to be replaced or overhauled.

Lawmakers also agreed to set aside $115 million to cover half of the new prison’s total cost, although they haven’t officially approved the money for that purpose. The prison proposal is part of a $9.7 billion, two-year budget package that won final approval on Tuesday and headed to Ricketts.

Some lawmakers questioned the need and pointed to last summer’s racial injustice protests in Omaha, Lincoln, and other Nebraska cities that called for an overhaul of police departments and the justice system.

“We need to prioritize the safety of Black and brown people in our budget” and focus on services for people who need them, said Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha. “We’re not going to make our communities safer by targeting people and locking them up.”

Hunt said constructing a new prison will perpetuate the “rotten” system that has led to the incarceration of millions of American minorities. She said her office has been deluged with critical phone calls since she tweeted “It’s a beautiful day to defund the police” on Sunday, but that she’s undaunted. Hunt chastised lawmakers for not doing more to address the issues raised by activists last summer.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, of Omaha, said lawmakers should put the money slated for the prison into other services that would help low-income people and minorities.

“We are being terrible stewards of the taxpayer dollars by doing this sort of thing,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s the easiest thing for us to do but it isn’t the right thing for us to do.”

The comments briefly delayed a vote on the budget measure, but it still passed on a 38-2 vote. Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru, said postponing the vote was preventing lawmakers from passing other measures that benefit the public. She said a majority of lawmakers still support giving police the resources they need.

“We can talk about catchy one-liners in this (Legislature), or we can actually get things done,” she said.

Nebraska is pushing for a new prison even as other states have closed theirs through changes to sentencing and parole laws, among other steps.

State prison officials have said building a new prison appears to be the most cost-effective way to ease chronic overcrowding in their current facilities. Nebraska had the nation’s second-most-crowded in prisons as of 2019, according to federal statistics, although the roughly 5,500 inmates in custody is a small overall number compared to larger states.

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