Nebraska lawmakers divided on prison plan

(Undated) -- Nebraska lawmakers are divided on how to handle prison overpopulation in the state and what to do with the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

Governor Pete Ricketts says the Nebraska State Penitentiary is nearing the end of its lifetime and action has to be taken, he also says state lawmakers have only two choices: fix the old facility or build a replacement. “At the end of the day, the legislature is going to have to make a decision. Are you going to put money into the current facility which was built in 1869 and really was not designed for modern correctional operations like doing programming to help make sure inmates don’t re-offend and then come back into our system?”

Lawmakers in the Unicameral did not give approval to build the $230 million replacement prison, and rather voted to spend close to $15 million to plan and pick a site for a new prison that is not much bigger than the current facility. “It does add on a couple of hundred beds, the proposal we’ve made is not about expanding capacity, it’s about replacing a facility that is going to be at the end of its useful life span here within the next decade,” said Ricketts.

Some state senators believe state dollars would be better used addressing issues as to why people end up in prison in the first place.

“We already do that in a number of different programs to be able to help people with that,” said Ricketts.

Sen. Terrell McKinney tells WOWT 6 News, “When you look at North Omaha in my district specifically, has the highest poverty rates in the state, one of the lowest graduation rates in the state, lowest median income. It’s so many things so if the state is investing resources into communities like North Omaha, wherever that money is going it’s definitely not working. I believe we could do better."

There are some lawmakers who don’t believe the process to build a new prison will stop. After millions of dollars are spent on planning and selecting a site, Sen. McKinney says, this is not a done deal. “I’m going to continue to fight it and fight for alternatives to address mental health, substance abuse, workforce development things like that because I believe we should be taking a holistic approach at this issue and shouldn’t be just to build a prison,” said McKinney.

On Friday, senators gave the first round approval to spent $14.9 million to begin planning for a new prison on a 37-4 vote.

(Photo by WOWT 6 News)

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