LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s prison system has completed a new 100-bed housing unit for work-release inmates with time and money to spare, and the department is on pace to meet a 2020 deadline to reduce overcrowding, the state corrections director said Thursday.
The Department of Correctional Services unveiled the new unit at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln.
Director Scott Frakes said the project was finished a little more than two weeks ahead of schedule at a cost of nearly $1.5 million, which is below the projected $1.8 million price tag. The project was scheduled to be completed Saturday but began housing inmates on Sept. 11.
The announcement offered a glimmer of good news for a department dogged by persistent overcrowding, staffing shortages, a high-profile escape last year and two deadly prison riots in a two-year period.
“This is a wonderful day,” Frakes said at a news conference to show off the new building.
Prison officials are looking to add 660 beds to the entire system, plus a new medical wing and prisoner dining and kitchen facilities in Lincoln. The next phase already underway is a 160-bed “community transitional housing” unit for female inmates, which is set for completion in March 2019 at an estimated cost of $26 million.
Frakes said the female unit will provide a more “therapeutic” environment for inmates, many of whom have suffered abuse and trauma that led them to commit crimes.
“We have the opportunity for Nebraska to join national leaders … providing more effective, better opportunities,” he said.
The unit unveiled Thursday will serve inmates who are within six months of their release date, said Charles West, warden of the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln.
“It expands the number of inmates you can put on work release,” West said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who attended the event, said the work-release unit will help the roughly 93 percent of Nebraska inmates who are expected to return to society. The work-release unit serves as a sleeping quarters for inmates who are allowed to leave the grounds for work or 48-hour furloughs.
“Our job is to prepare them for leaving the corrections system,” Ricketts said.
Frakes said he’s optimistic his department will meet a state-mandated deadline to reduce prison crowding by 2020. The prison system housed 5,307 inmates as of Thursday, which is roughly 157 percent of its current design capacity.
State law allows governors to declare a prison “emergency” when the inmate population exceeds 140 percent of the prison system’s design capacity, but Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman declined to do so.
If the population is still above that threshold on July 1, 2020, the prison system will automatically fall into a state of emergency under a law approved in 2015. A state of emergency would require officials to consider paroling all eligible inmates immediately, although the state parole board would still decide each case.
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