- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A consultant hired by the state is suggesting that Nebraska could expand its prison facilities to deal with overcrowding, but the idea faces opposition from Gov. Dave Heineman and a key state lawmaker.

Heineman said Wednesday that he remains strongly opposed to building a new prison, which by some estimates could cost $130 million. He argued that the state first needs to conclude its ongoing study of Nebraska’s prison system, and previously has said the state should look at lower-cost options.

“No decision about long-term prison construction should be made until Nebraska has the opportunity to develop and thoroughly review a comprehensive prison strategy,” Heineman said.

The report to Nebraska lawmakers suggests a 300-bed expansion to Omaha corrections facilities, a 200-bed addition to the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, and 340 additional beds for elderly and mentally ill inmates at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln. It also recommends additional space for food service, corrections programs and dining facilities, while consolidating skilled nursing facilities and other services.

The report, by state consultant Dewberry Architects, was produced as part of the Department of Correctional Services‘ efforts to ease overcrowding. The suggestions are not final but were released as part of a progress update.



The total cost of the proposals isn’t yet known, said Dawn-Renee Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Nebraska’s newest prison, the 960-bed Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, cost $74 million by the time it opened in 2001.

Nebraska’s correctional facilities held 4,918 inmates as of Jan. 31 - nearly 155 percent of their design capacity.

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who is leading the Legislature’s prison reform effort, said Nebraska first needs to increase funding for prisoner job-training programs, mental health services and efforts to help inmates return to the community. Ashford said additional prison space would only exacerbate Nebraska’s overcrowding problem.

“We’d be going in the wrong direction,” he said. “If you build another prison without putting those plans in place, you’re just going to see the problem get worse.”

The prison system surfaced as an issue after several high-profile incidents involving the state Department of Correctional Services, including the Nikko Jenkins case.

Jenkins is charged with four Omaha-area slayings after he was released from prison without supervision. He had threatened violence while incarcerated and begged corrections officials to commit him to a mental health institution. A state ombudsman’s report released in January faulted the department for its handling of the case.

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