By Paul Hammel
More than 100 state prison inmates have now been transferred to county jails in the state as part of an effort to reduce chronic overcrowding of state facilities.
The transfers, authorized by the State Legislature this spring, have reduced crowding at the state’s most crowded facility.
As of Wednesday, 109 state inmates were housed at county jails in Grand Island, Columbus and Holdrege.
The Nebraska Legislature authorized one-time spending of $5 million to house up to 150 state prisoners at county jails over the next year.
Hall County, the first county to sign a contract, is holding 96 state inmates at its 257-bed jail in Grand Island. Eight inmates were being held at the Platte County Jail and five at the Phelps County Jail.
Despite concerns voiced by some state lawmakers about using jails that are designed for shorter-term inmates, there have been few problems, according to Hall County Corrections Director Fred Ruiz.
“My hope is to convince the Legislature and show that we can do a good job,” Ruiz said. “It’s not for everybody, but it’s working well here.”
A State Corrections spokeswoman, Dawn-Renee Smith, said that Buffalo and Saline Counties have also signed agreements to house inmates for the state. Two other counties, Seward and Dawson, are in discussions about joining them, she said.
That should be enough jails to house the 150 inmates authorized under the one-year program, according to Smith. “It is going very well to date,” she said in an email.
Gov. Dave Heineman said it was too soon to tell whether the one-year trial with county jails will need to be continued.
The recent revelations about mistaken release dates for hundreds of state inmates are sure to create more crowding pressure in state prisons, which held 5,130 inmates as of July 31. That is 1,855 inmates more than the design capacity of the system, or about 57 percent over capacity.
The governor said a state prison reform study, which is underway in conjunction with the Council of State Governments, will determine whether the use of county jails will extend beyond one year.
Nebraska has been struggling with prison overcrowding for several years and turned to the use of county jails — as some other states have done — to offer short-term relief until other measures to reduce prison population take hold.
Heineman said one key question that needs to be answered is why Nebraska’s prison population continues to rise while its crime rate is dropping.
The county jail project has had some impact on crowding already. State prisons held 16 fewer inmates at the end of July than they did a month earlier.
And the state’s most overcrowded prison, the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln, held 93 fewer inmates at the end of July than it did June 14, when it housed 523 inmates. That is more than three times its design capacity of 160.
Ruiz, of Hall County, said state inmates have told him they have much more room to maneuver at his jail. At the D&E Center this year, an average of 97 inmates a night are sleeping on temporary plastic floor cots, known as “boats.”
“There’s elbow room here,” Ruiz said. “There’s room to walk around, you can take a shower any time of the day, email or Skype any time of the day … that’s just something you don’t get at D&E.”
In June, six inmates from the D&E Center filed lawsuits, claiming the overcrowding left the state facility with inadequate restroom and shower facilities, a stressful environment and a waiting list for medical services.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a watchdog of the state corrections system, had opposed the use of county jails, saying they lack the rehabilitation programs offered at state prisons, which are designed for longer-term inmates.
Ruiz said his jail has a law library and does offer health care and mental health care. It also has Alcoholics Anonymous classes, though he said it would have less programming than offered by the state.
He said his jail has made some adjustments for the state inmates. One was to set up a way for them to use email or Skype, an Internet video link, to keep in touch with family members who may live far from Grand Island.
The Phelps County Jail administrator, Lt. Penny Gregg, said counties have a financial incentive to take state inmates. Operating costs at county jails are about the same whether they are full or partly full, so the extra revenue can make a difference.
Buffalo County, for instance, has been contracting with Adams and Kearney Counties to help fill its three-year-old jail’s 205 beds, more than the county needs now. The state will pay $75 per day, per inmate, to house up to six state inmates in Buffalo County, said Sheriff Neil Miller. Hall County is getting $88 a day.
“This is just one more place we looked to generate some revenue to pay down our bonds,” Miller said.
So far, the state’s largest county has not been contacted by state officials, according to Douglas County Corrections Director Mark Foxall.
The county has plenty of beds: 326 of its 1,453 jail beds were empty Wednesday. But Foxall said he needs more details before deciding whether it would work for Douglas County to take in state inmates.
Some county officials had said there were still hard feelings with the state over an old program that was supposed to reimburse counties to house those awaiting sentencing to state prisons. The state regularly ran out of money to reimburse the counties, which were left holding the bill.
Miller and others said the arrangement in 2014 is different: The contracts state that if the state doesn’t pay, they’ll have to pick up their inmates.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, one of the main advocates for using county cells to relieve state overcrowding, said he’s been trying, without success, to get an accounting of the progress of the effort.
He expressed concern Wednesday that use of county jails might have to be extended beyond next June. That’s because the inmates whose release dates were miscalculated by the state now have more than 2,000 extra years, cumulatively, to serve in prison.