LINCOLN — Chronic prison overcrowding has prompted Nebraska corrections officials to request an additional $12.6 million over two years to cover the additional medical care, food and building maintenance needed for the crush of inmates.
But two state senators called the request incomplete because it didn't address how to reduce the swollen prison population, which was 50.6 percent above capacity Friday, or about 1,600 inmates over design capacity.
“I was a little perplexed and shocked when I read through their request,” said State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who heads the legislative committee that approves spending requests from state agencies.
“The larger issue still looms: What is the administration proposing to deal with overcrowding?” Mello asked.
Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, a leading voice in the Nebraska Legislature on corrections issues, raised similar questions.
A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Corrections, Dawn-Renee Smith, said overcrowding is a complex issue that will require more time to consider options.
Some of those options include building a new prison — an expense that Mello, Ashford, Gov. Dave Heineman and others say they want to avoid — renovating an empty county jail in Lincoln's Air Park area or investing in alternatives to incarceration, such as supervised probation, parole and work release programs.
“We're trying to work that through and figure out what is the best approach, and what we need to do to have the most impact on the population,” Smith said. “We'll submit that as soon as we're able to.”
Mello, who heads the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, called on corrections officials last month to detail their plans for dealing with prison overcrowding in what's called a deficit budget request.
But the request, received last week, focused on addressing the issues associated with overcrowding and not the problem itself.
This is the second straight year that the department has submitted a deficit request. Last year, state lawmakers approved an additional $5 million to reopen a unit at the Omaha Correctional Center and rehire guards who were laid off during the recession.
The department is asking for an additional $5.3 million in the current fiscal year and $7.3 million in 2014-15.
About two-thirds of the request is for increased health care costs, which Smith attributed to inflation in medical treatment costs, increased need for out-of-prison care and an increase in the number of older inmates, as well as more inmates overall.
The department now has 847 inmates age 50 and older, more than three times the number of older inmates as in 2000, according to state budget figures.
Smith said that while the state's prisons have clinics to treat minor maladies, more serious medical needs such as surgeries and orthopedic and cardiac care, must be handled by local hospitals. The department's overall health care expenses rose nearly 30 percent from 2009-10 to 2012-13, to $19.9 million, and more than half of that money was spent on out-of-prison care.
The request also includes about $1 million per year in additional money to cover rising food and clothing expenses for a larger inmate population, which was 4,782 as of Friday. Food is also getting more expensive, according to the department, rising from $2.76 per inmate, per day in fiscal year 2010 to $2.98 last year.
The department is also asking for an additional $1.5 million for deferred maintenance, which Smith said included projects such as repairing roofs and patching parking lots.
Both Mello and Ashford said they were anxious to hear the department's plan to relieve overcrowding, and what its cost might be.
“Clearly, it's more than they're requesting in this budget request,” Ashford said.
He projected Monday that the Legislature would need to allocate an additional $25 million for more probation officers and treatment programs to deal with the glut of inmates to avoid spending $130 million or more on a new prison.
“Twenty-five million dollars is a lot less expensive than $130 million,” Ashford said.
The prison overcrowding issue has heated up in recent months, after a series of deaths linked to released inmates, prisoners on work release or furloughs.
In June, a state van being driven by a work release inmate crossed the center line of a Lincoln street and struck another van, killing the woman behind the wheel. That followed a September 2012 incident in which an inmate on a weekend furlough was shot and killed by Omaha police after police say he reached for a gun.
In August of this year, four people were killed in Omaha, and the man charged in those killings was an inmate released from prison in late July.
That inmate, Nikko Jenkins, served 10˝ years of an 18- to 21-year sentence for robbery. He was granted “good time” reductions in his sentence under a state law designed to reward inmates for good behavior.
Critics say Jenkins should have lost more good time for assaults and other misbehavior while in prison and should have been kept in prison longer. Gov. Dave Heineman and others have said the “good time” law should be changed to require hardened criminals to “earn” sentence reductions via good behavior.
Next week, a team from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center will visit Nebraska to offer its input on solutions to overcrowding.
Smith said she didn't have a timeline for when the Department of Correctional Services would issue its recommendations. The next legislative session begins Jan. 8, and Smith said the agency plans to unveil a new master plan by May.