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Nebraska’s state senators accomplished a lot over the 60 days of the second session of the 107th legislature. 

By the time the session adjourned sine die on April 20, just in time for Snoop Dogg’s Lincoln concert, the unicameral had passed the largest tax reduction package in state history. They also made progress on several major water projects across the state, including the creation of a large lake between Lincoln and Omaha — which I strongly support — and allocating $335 million to affordable housing and infrastructure improvements in impoverished areas across the state.

However, one major issue remains largely unaddressed for yet another year: the crisis in Nebraska’s prisons. 

Nebraska prisons are the most overcrowded in the nation, and the state government has been attempting to alleviate the issue for several years to no avail. Overcrowded and understaffed prison conditions resulted in a 2015 prison riot that made national news and seven years later, many of the same problems remain

In 2020, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services declared an overcrowding emergency in Nebraska’s prisons. As of July 1, 2020, the state’s 10 prisons were operating at 151% of their capacity. 

Senator Steve Lathrop of Omaha introduced a bill in the 2022 session that would help deal with overcrowding by reducing sentences for non-violent felons and expanding parole programs for inmates. However, the bill was indefinitely postponed after a failure to overcome a filibuster by four votes.

Another proposed solution is the construction of a new state prison with 1,512 beds, which could open in 2025 at the earliest while costing the state an estimated $230 million in construction costs and $34 million each year to operate. However, some senators have argued that the cost to build a new prison would only be a temporary fix to a larger systemic problem. If the number of Nebraska prisoners grows at its current rate, the state would still be short by 1,300 beds in 2030 with a new prison. 

Whatever the solution may be, one thing is for certain: inaction is unacceptable for prisoners, prison staff and Nebraska taxpayers.

Under current conditions, Nebraska prisoners are sometimes locked down with four men in cells designed for two people. The Diagnostic and Evaluation System often has more than 500 prisoners in a building with a capacity of 160. Unsurprisingly, there are also mental health implications for inmates.

Prison officials are also stressed about the situation, with many employees working overtime up to 16 hours each day. Scheduling is often unpredictable, leaving correctional officers to quit their jobs, which makes the issue worse for the employees that remain. 

And perhaps most importantly to a majority of Nebraska voters, the current prison system is quite costly. Over the last three years, the state has spent $48 million on overtime pay for prison officials, which is more than any other state department by a long shot. One prison employee was even paid an additional $97,400, nearly double his base pay, in overtime salary over a 12-month span. 

 In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an election coming up, and the governor’s race isn’t the only election that will be on the ballot. It is important to elect a governor who will make prison reform a priority, but it is also important to have a supportive state legislature to get a bill to the governor’s desk in the first place. 

In the 24 even-numbered districts of the state legislature, voters will have an opportunity this May to narrow the field of candidates down to two in each of the nonpartisan primaries. 

I encourage you to look into the details of each of the plans and research candidates’ stances on the issues. If they do not have a stance, I encourage you to ask them about it. Most campaign websites have links to a candidate’s Facebook or a way to email them directly, and public pressure on an issue — especially one without a definitive stance — is a great way to get them to care.

The prison system in Nebraska is too complex to be summarized in an opinion column, but Nebraskans deserve politicians who are willing to work across the aisle to alleviate one of the state’s largest problems.

Inmates, prison staff and taxpayers are all counting on it. 

Brian Beach is a junior journalism major. Reach him at brianbeach@dailynebraskan.com