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State and local prisons faced with overcrowding


With overcrowding in Nebraska state prisons reaching a critical point, state officials are seeking ways to reform the system.

According to a report by the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska state prisons are currently resting near 151 percent capacity. As of June 30, the nine major state prison facilities throughout the state housed 4,796 inmates. However, they are only designed to hold 3,175.

Other states such as Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and South Carolina, which have faced the same problem of overcrowding, have greatly reduced their populations by diverting more drug offenders into treatment programs instead of prison. Nebraska Senators such as Heath Mello, who serves as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, have taken notice of other states' reforms and are working them into the new plan to reduce overcrowding in the Cornhusker state.

"Right now we're looking at successful models at other states and trying to educate legislators,” Mello said. “If we don't come up with something, the only other option is to build a state prison, which is something no one wants to do.”

A new prison facility would cost the state $110 million, according to a report by the Journal Star. Stacking that cost with the $29,000 a year it takes to house an inmate, Nebraska Senator Ben Ashford, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, believes that the state should take a closer look at the inmates currently incarcerated and implement a different approach between higher level offenses and non-violent lower-level crimes.

"We're incarcerating people way beyond what is necessary for public safety,” Ashford said. “We have to develop a new strategy.”

Approximately 42 percent of Nebraska's inmates are in prison for more severe offenses such as first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, first-degree assault, first-degree sexual assault, first-degree sexual assault of a child and robbery while the remaining 58 percent are serving time for lower level sex and drug offenses.

Overcrowding at the state level is also trickling down into the counties, with local Nebraska officials such as Cheyenne County Sheriff John Jenson attempting to find other places to hold their inmates.

Overcrowding has even led to Kimball County having to put an end to a previous agreement with Cheyenne County where Kimball County would take the female inmates in the Cheyenne County facilities, due to both the fact that Kimball County is one of the few with female jailers in the area and state law which prohibits male jailers from watching female inmates, according to Kimball County Jail Administrator Linda Williams.

"Cheyenne County would bring their females over and take our males. Between theirs with everything going on over there and us being very heavy, we've had to discontinue that now. Say we have six males, they don't have room for six additional males. We all have to take ours to Scottsbluff and pay $60 a day for them to be held," Williams said.

Though many solutions have been bounced around at the state level including an increase in sending inmates into drug treatment programs, this would do little to help out on the county level as county facilities are only equipped to hold inmates on a short-term basis.

The Cheyenne County Jail is not immune to this statewide problem. The county jail is full most of the time, said Cheyenne County Sherriff John Jenson.

"It's been pretty much max for the last three or four years," Jenson said.

There was a steady increase over the years before the jail started reaching maximum capacity on a regular basis, he added. When Jenson first started working for the sheriff's department in 1995, having six to eight inmates in the jail was considered full. Now it is generally always at maximum capacity.

"All my beds are full right now," Jenson said in late September.

At that time, Cheyenne County was housing four females in Garden County, three inmates in Scottsbluff and three in Lincoln. Cheyenne County Jail can hold 20 inmates, not including the drunk tank, which can be filled tightly, but cannot be used to house inmates long term.

Cheyenne County generally uses it as an isolation cell to evaluate inmates when they are first booked into jail. When the facility becomes too full, Cheyenne County must send inmates to other counties. Sometimes the sheriff's department has to send inmates to different jails for reasons other than overcrowding. Garden County holds all the females for Cheyenne County. The ones currently in Scottsbluff are there for their own protection because Cheyenne County does not have isolation cells. The three inmates in Lincoln are Cheyenne County's homicide suspects.

Because Jenson cannot provide a separate cell for each inmate, those who have committed sex crimes or crimes against children have to be sent to Lincoln or Scottsbluff for their own safety.

"When we're tight, in a small area like this, I can't protect them," Jenson said.

One idea, to help alleviate the state prison overcrowding is to house some state offenders in county jails that have extra room available. Jenson thinks this is a viable idea, but it is not something Cheyenne County could participate in, because they simply don't have the space.

"Do I think that's a better idea than turning them out on early parole?" Jenson asked. "Absolutely, I think that's a fantastic idea if these new jails that are being built have the capacity for it, sure."

He thinks building a new jail or housing state prisoners in county jails will just be a temporary fix, anyway.

"Eventually, all those jails are gonna get filled up too," Jenson said. "And it's not just us that's got a steady increase. Jails across the state have seen a big increase in population."

This is due to not only increased arrests, but longer sentences coming from the courts, Jenson added. Some offenders might be sentenced to 90-120 days for a crime as opposed to 30 they would have gotten in the past for the same offense.

"This is gonna tax the local jails a little bit more than normal," Jenson said.

Though it is still up in the air what exactly will be decided at the state level, it is becoming more clear that steps need to be taken soon. State facilities are projected to reach 171 percent capacity by 2020.


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