LINCOLN — The director of Nebraska's prison system urged state lawmakers Tuesday to provide additional funds as a short-term “triage” before it is decided whether new prisons are needed to relieve overcrowding.
But Director Mike Kenney fended off recent suggestions that state corrections facilities lack adequate mental health care or enough rehabilitation programs to allow inmates to be released on parole.
“We have adequate programming,” Kenney said.
The comments came as the Legislature's Appropriations Committee weighed a request by state corrections officials to provide an extra $12.6 million over the next two years to handle a record number of inmates.
The money would be used to house 150 state inmates in county jails, add 50 beds at the McCook Work Ethic Camp, hire 59 more correctional officers and pay for additional food and medical care.
After the hearing, State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the committee, said it was as if Kenney were “pretending that there hasn't been controversy” surrounding the department.
The agency has been in the spotlight not only for issues related to overcrowding but also for its handling of former prison inmate Nikko Jenkins. Jenkins, who was released in July, stands charged with four slayings in the Omaha area that happened shortly after his release.
Mello said Tuesday's public hearing on the department's deficit request raised “more questions than answers.”
He said he particularly wanted more information about cutbacks in job training and other programs that prepare inmates to re-enter society.
Tuesday, Nebraska's prisons stood at 149.9 percent of capacity, holding 1,744 more inmates than their design capacity.
The overcrowding has raised concerns that the state might be forced by a federal court to release inmates, as has happened in California.
Concerns have also been raised that corrections spending has not kept up with the crowding, leading to a lack of treatment for the 30 percent of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses and to inadequate rehabilitation programs.
A recent report by the State Ombudsman's Office faulted the Department of Correctional Services for a shortage of programs, citing a waiting list of 708 inmates last fall.
The report said the shortage has contributed to the overcrowding problem by delaying parole for some inmates who cannot receive the anger management, substance abuse or sex offender treatment necessary to be released.
Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee peppered Kenney with questions about overcrowding. Some asked why the department hasn't asked for more money for programs.
Kenney said that he's open to prison and sentencing reforms but that the immediate problems are security and public safety, to relieve the overcrowding until a new master facilities plan is completed later this year.
“It's a triage of where can we apply the most amount of water on the fire,” he said.
But, Kenney added, the problem of waiting lists preventing inmates from being released on parole is less severe than perceived.
He said that of the 1,125 inmates eligible for parole, only 206 have signed up for programs and are on waiting lists. Of those 206, Kenney said, at least 41 can be discounted because they are either in other programs or in disciplinary cells, or they have other issues that prevent them from being in classes.
That, he said, really leaves only 165 inmates on waiting lists, which he said doesn't indicate a shortage of programs.