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Unicam Gives Initial Approval To $14-M To Design But Not Necessarily Build New Prison

     Nebraska lawmakers gave 37-3 first-round approval after lengthy debate Friday to spend $14.9-million dollars in the next budget to start designing and planning a new $230-million dollar prison without committing to actually build it.

      Gov Pete Ricketts proposed the 1,512 bed prison to relieve overcrowding and replace the increasingly outdated State Penitentiary in Lincoln, and the budget drafted by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee and given first-round approval Thurs sets aside half the needed money without approval to spend it.

      Nebraska’s prisons hold nearly 50% more people than they were designed for, but many lawmakers question whether a prison is the best way to deal with overcrowding – especially since the federally-funded Criminal Justice Institute is doing a study on how the state can prevent people from returning to prison after being released.

       Senator John Cavanaugh remained skeptical, comparing designing the prison with the story of how a frog will jump out of a pan of hot water, but will cook to death if placed in cool water that’s then heated. 

      Other skeptics included Senator Megan Hunt, who doubts the Dept of Correctional Services would change its mind on a prison it wants, and North Omaha Senator Terrell McKinney, who said the money might be better spent on addressing the reasons a much higher percentage of Blacks than whites end up in prison. 

      Appropriations Chair Senator John Stinner of Gering said he understood the concerns about building a new prison, but that the Penitentiary is “wearing out” and will need to be replaced, so having a master plan ready when the decision is made on moving forward – based on the federally funded study – makes sense. 

       After nearly a full day of debate on the issue, senators voted 27-7 against an amendment stripping the planning money for the new prison out of the capital construction budget bill, then gave that bill first round approval.