As other states close prisons, Nebraska may build a big one

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FILE - In this Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, file photo guards observe inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, in Lincoln, Neb. Nebraska officials are pushing for a new, $230 million prison to relieve inmate overcrowding, even as prison officials in other states close prisons. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik File)

OMAHA, Neb. – Across the nation officials are closing prisons as crime rates drop and views about drug use change, but not in Nebraska, where the governor is pushing for a new $230 million prison to relieve overcrowding and house a steadily rising inmate population.

It's not certain that lawmakers will support Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' plan to build a 1,512-bed maximum security prison, but the fact that the state is considering what would amount to a 37% increase in bed space runs counter to most states.

Sen. John McCollister, who has introduced bills this year to try to steer more inmates into rehabilitation programs, said he can't understand it.

“It’s too bad Nebraska hasn’t learned from the experiences of other states,” McCollister said. “We’re definitely going against the grain.”

As Nebraska is seeking to expand its prison capacity, other states are taking a different approach.

California plans to shutter one prison this year that holds about 1,500 inmates and another as early as 2022, partly in response to state budget cuts. Connecticut plans to close two facilities as the state’s prisoner population fell to its lowest level in three decades.

In 2019, Republican-led Missouri closed one of its maximum-security prisons for an estimated $20 million savings, after cutting the possible prison time for nonviolent drug offenses and allowing parole for more nonviolent offenders.

Similar attempts to reduce Nebraska's prison population have repeatedly stalled because of opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement. Nebraska’s attorney general has argued that most of those serving mandatory minimums in Nebraska are repeat offenders or have committed major drug crimes, such as manufacturing large amounts of methamphetamine.