“I just want the conditions to change”: Water woes a theme in recent years at NSP

Recent water pipe burst in Nebraska State Penitentiary reveals underlying issues with aging facility.
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 9:51 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - It isn’t the first time it’s happened: a major pipe breaking at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

The latest one last week, led to water being temporarily shut off in four housing units, affecting hundreds of inmates. It’s the latest in a frustrating trend of water troubles at Nebraska’s oldest prison.

“There’s been a prison at that location for a long time, so there’s a lot of pipes under the ground,” said Doug Koebernick, the inspector general of the Nebraska Correctional System.

Koebernick serves as the state’s prison system watchdog. He said Tuesday there have been 13 failures or leaks in the main water lines during the past few years.

Laura Lewis is the mother of an inmate at the NSP. She said she talked with her son on Monday, a few days after a pipe broke. He was one of the 600 affected inmates.

“I just want the conditions to change and to be livable,” Lewis said.

Her son told her he was given very little water to drink, only one 12-ounce water bottle per day, while the pipe was being fixed between Friday and Saturday. He also claimed there was black mold leftover from the burst, but NDCS refutes that claim and said there was plenty of bottled water available.

A spokesperson with the department issued this statement:

“Water to the four affected housing units was restored at 4 p.m. on Saturday. During the time the water was shut off, individuals had access to portable restrooms and bottled water, which was plentiful throughout the units. I am not aware of any specific concerns related to mold – cleaning is done daily and has been completed several times since the water was back on. The pipe that leaked was 10 feet or more below a concrete road. As soon as the leak was detected, action was taken. Finding which pipes need attention before a leak happens is nearly impossible given the size of the facility and the number and depth of pipes throughout the campus.”

Koebernick said there was only mildew, not mold, and it was cleaned in the days after the fix. He said the larger issue facing the facility is overcrowding.

“In those units where they had the water shut off for a couple of days, basically, they’re designed to hold a hundred people,” Koebernick said. “There’s about two hundred people in there.”

Aging infrastructure and overcrowding aren’t likely to be solved overnight, but Koebernick said there’s a request for state funds to design and install a new water distribution system throughout the facility. That would cost about $1.7 million.

While the most recent water pipe mess has been taken care of, there is still another housing unit that remains closed at NSP from a pipe burst and flooding back in November. Koebernick said that unit could be completely unusable for months and even years to come.