By PAUL HAMMEL
LINCOLN — State corrections officials showed off the newest addition to the state prison system Wednesday, touting it as safer for both inmates and staff and better able to rehabilitate prisoners and retain security staff.
The $125 million addition to the Lincoln Correctional Center and Diagnostic and Evaluation Center includes two 32-bed units for inmates with acute mental illnesses and those needing medical care, as well as a 384-bed are to house the state’s most dangerous prisoners.
“The bottom line is you’re going to see a great prison,” said State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, prior to a tour for news media and state officials, including Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Addition similar to proposed prison
Frakes said many of the design features in the maximum security wing of the recently renamed Reception and Treatment Center will be similar to those envisioned in a 1,500-bed prison being planned by the Ricketts administration to replace the aging State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
The Nebraska Legislature declined this spring to give the final go-ahead for a $270 million prison, opting to wait for a new master plan for the state prison system expected before the end of the year. But state lawmakers did set aside $175 million for the ultimate construction of the massive facility, if approved in the 2023 legislative session and by a new, incoming governor.
Frakes did say that some of the 10 state senators who toured the RTC on Monday remarked that they had a clearer picture of what the larger, proposed prison would look like.
“They said, ‘Now I can visualize it,’” the corrections director said.
The idea behind the new RTC prison addition, built on Lincoln’s western edge, was to provide more secure and modern maximum-security housing for the state’s most dangerous inmates and to expand and enhance mental health facilities and health care.
Sliding cell doors
Among the added security features are sliding cell doors, which are less dangerous than the swinging doors now used in maximum security units across the state.
The new addition includes a modern kitchen capable of feeding 1,350 inmates, an improved dental clinic and new amenities for staff, including a locker, separate lunch room and weight room.
Frakes said the RTC addition provides more room for inmates to safely move around and congregate, and more space for rehabilitation classes.
The expansion will slightly reduce overcrowding in the state’s most overcrowded prison and the nation’s most overcrowded prison system.
Design capacity increase
During the first quarter of 2022, the RTC held an average of 1,077 inmates, which was more than double the design capacity of 468. Overall, the state prison system was holding about 900 more inmates than its nine prisons were designed to hold and was at 152% of capacity.
Overcrowding at the RTC is expected to drop from the current 230% as the design capacity increases to 884 beds.
Recent pay raises for corrections corporals, sergeants and caseworkers, Frakes said, has significantly reduced staff vacancies among those ranks. He said the state has hired 200 security staffers from 36 states since December and hired 472 new protective services employees all together.
The RTC, state penetentiary and state prison in Tecumseh still remain on “staffing emergency” status, which means longer shifts for employees, fewer visiting hours and restrictions on yard time for inmates to four days a week instead of seven. Prison officials had predicted those emergencies would be lifted in April, but Frakes said Wednesday that officials are now working on phasing out the emergencies in upcoming weeks.
Overall, protective services now has 160 vacancies, he said, a major improvement compared to 427 vacancies in November. Most vacant positions in Lincoln and Omaha have been filled, he said, with more work needed at Tecumseh, a rural prison that has a history of staff shortages, high turnover and high staff overtime costs.
Frakes said if current trends continue, turnover for staff will be about 16% this year. It was above 30% a couple of years ago.
Doug Koebernick, the inspector general for corrections for the Nebraska Legislature, said Wednesday that while there has been significant improvement in staffing for security positions, the prison system still struggles to hire enough nurses and food-service personnel to staff its facilities.
“They were in a really big hole, so it’s going to take some time,” Koebernick said.
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, who has criticized the state for investing in new prisons instead of jobs and programs to avoid sending people to prison, said the key to the success of the RTC, as well as the proposed, 1,500-bed prison, will be properly staffing the facilities.
“We’re over-incarcerating people,” McKinney said. “That’s the problem.”
During Wednesday’s tour for the news media, RTC Warden Taggart Boyd said the addition of a dialysis machine in the medical clinic will avoid trips to Lincoln hospitals for the procedure. An MRI machine also will be added at the prison, he said.
The housing units have sound-deadening ceiling tiles, Boyd said, which translates into less shouting, fewer confrontations and a calmer atmosphere. The new, larger visiting rooms include a play area for children of inmates,which helps inmates better connect with their families, he said.
“If you create safer living conditions, you get safer working conditions and safer prisons,” Boyd said.
More space for rehab sessions means more opportunity to help inmates finish required programs sooner, before being released on parole, he added.
Ricketts pointed out that 93% of all inmates in state prisons eventually return to society, so better programming and preparation is important.
Another new addition to the RTC is a $150,000 full-body scanner, like those seen in airports. Frakes said. The scanner, a first for a Nebraska prison, will be used for staff and prison visitors to reduce the flow of contraband, such as drugs, into the prison.
Frakes was evasive when asked whether he would be around for the debate over the new prison. Ricketts hired him shorter after taking office. There have been some rumors that the corrections director would leave when Ricketts leaves office.
“I’ve got to see what happens,” Frakes said. “I’m very particular about who I work for. I’ve been spoiled.”