Nebraska State Penitentiary
Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes declared that Nebraska's 10 prisons are currently at 151% capacity. Photo by Sydney Heineman

The director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services says he will be forced to declare a prison overcrowding emergency on July 1.

A 2015 law requires Gov. Pete Ricketts to declare an overcrowding emergency by July 1, 2020, if the prison population surpasses 140% of design capacity. As of the morning of June 25, the capacity was at 151% across the state’s 10 prisons.

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes sought to assure the public that the declaration would not jeopardize public safety.

“There’s been speculation that this certification will result in the automatic release of numerous inmates in an effort to reduce the number of people housed,” Frakes said. “This is not correct.”

Overcrowded prisons can present a host of risks for inmates and correctional facility staff, such as limited access to health care and cramped living conditions.

“Overcrowding puts everyone at risk and that includes staff and the people who are incarcerated,” said Sam Petto, ACLU Nebraska communications director. “Add COVID-19 to the mix and you got 17 people who are sharing a sink and a toilet and people who are sleeping on mats on the floor because they don’t have enough space for them.”

There are 821 parole-eligible inmates in Nebraska prisons. But, Frakes said he does not plan on releasing any inmates who do not meet parole requirements.

“Nebraska does not have a pool of low-level drug offenders who can be immediately released,” he said. “The majority have committed additional more serious crimes.”

Only 14% of those who are parole eligible have a drug offense as their most serious offense. This means the majority have committed another crime in addition to a drug offense.

The state prison system annually takes in and releases about 2,500 people. Frakes proposed building a new prison facility to ease prison overcrowding and meet the immediate and long-term demand.

“Nebraska needs a new prison,” he said. “In order to give taxpayers the best value for their dollars, we need to build for the future.”

Petto, however, believes building new prisons will only perpetuate the problem.

“What we heard from the board wasn’t encouraging,” Petto said. “Again and again what we seem to hear is no expectations that this will reduce overcrowding and that the only solution is building a quarter of a million of dollars worth of a prison.”

Petto cited Nebraska’s mandatory minimum sentences and a lack of strong re-entry programming as being other contributors to Nebraska’s high prison population.

Parole board chairwoman Roslyn Cotton said the board will accelerate the parole review process and has already increased the number of hearings.

“The parole board plays an important role in a criminal justice system and public safety,” she said.

From January 2019 to May 2020, the board held 2,700 parole hearings and supported the release of 1,546 of those individuals. Cotton emphasized that three-fifths were granted parole.

“Cotton proudly noted that three-fifths are granted parole, but to us we kind of put that on its head and say you say 40% aren’t ready to enter the community and that is not a success story to us,” Petto said.

ACLU Nebraska fears the state will add more prisons instead of addressing overcrowding in a new way.

“Trying to build new prisons to keep up with the rising prison population has not worked at any time in the last 40 years,” Petto said.

Madeleine Grant is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying journalism. She enjoys reading, writing and travel. Madeleine is from Illinois and aspires to become a professional journalist or editor.