LINCOLN — The director of Nebraska’s prison system unveiled plans Tuesday to convert the state’s oldest prison into a minimum-security facility for $4 million in new costs, but he said the plan would only work if lawmakers agree to build a separate, $230 million prison for higher-risk inmates.
Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes outlined the project to overhaul the Nebraska State Penitentiary as part of a larger effort to ease overcrowding in the state prisons. Lawmakers are considering the new prison proposal, but some have voiced concerns about the costs.
The penitentiary in Lincoln is the state’s oldest prison, dating back to 1869, and houses a combination of maximum-, medium- and minimum-security inmates. State officials have said it’s nearing the end of its useful life, and will need significant upgrades regardless of whether lawmakers approve a new prison.
Converting the prison “would be a great use for the facility without putting any substantial amount of new money into it,” Frakes said in a briefing with reporters.
The conversion would cost an estimated $24 million, but Frakes said $20 million of that expense is for roof repairs, a new heating and air conditioning system and other upgrades that will have to be made no matter what lawmakers decide. The remaining $4 million would cover remodeling recommendations from a contractor.
Under the agency’s preferred plan, Nebraska would use the new, $230 million prison to house high-risk inmates. The additional facility would free bed space in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, allowing the agency to operate with less security and more rehabilitative services for inmates before they’re released. Frakes said the overhaul would allow the state penitentiary to remain in operation until 2035.
If lawmakers choose not to build the new, $230 million prison, Frakes said his agency could renovate the Nebraska State Penitentiary and continue its current operations at a cost of $196 million.
He said that option is more difficult and less efficient, however, because it would require contractors to build a separate, secure work area so they could remain separated from inmates. Crews would also have to pass through security checkpoints, inventory their tools and have their cars searched each day, reducing the amount the work time and making the project run longer.
Both options were outlined in a report commissioned by a consulting firm hired by the state. Frakes said the report “speaks to the need to do something to address an aging facility.”
It’s unclear whether the proposal will resonate with lawmakers. Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said last week that he was open to the department’s proposal, but also wanted to hear input from organizations that might have other ideas of how to address overcrowding in the prisons.
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