Turmoil over site for new state prison prompts press conference Wednesday

LINCOLN  — East of the Lincoln city landfill lies nearly 417 acres of rolling farmland, trees and prairie owned by the City of Lincoln that some local officials and residents say would be a better location for a state prison than the site selected.

“It would be a lot less hassle,” said Brian Gage, the former warden at the Tecumseh State Prison and now a criminal justice instructor at Southeast Community College.

“It would be more desirable than in a neighborhood,” said Christa Yoakum, the chair of the Lancaster County Board.

And on Wednesday, we may find out if that site is now being considered for a new, 1,500-bed, $366-million state prison.

Tuesday evening, Gov. Jim Pillen and Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird — who had been at odds over the best site for the new prison — announced that they will appear jointly at a press conference at noon Wednesday.

The announcement comes after increasing complaints about the initial site selected — a 300-acre plot of farmland at 112th and Adams Streets, just east of new housing subdivisions and in the path of Lincoln’s growth.

Gov. Jim Pillen, in announcing the site selection on Aug. 18, said the state and city had had a disagreement on where the prison should be sited.

So, he said, the state changed course, and obtained an option to buy the northwest section of 112th and Adams.

The choice brought howls of protests from nearby owners of homes and townhomes, who said they were blindsided by the pick. Lawsuits have already been discussed.

Pillen, during an appearance Monday on Lincoln radio station KLIN, confirmed that the property the state had preferred was in the vicinity of the Lincoln city landfill, which sits just northeast of Interstate 80 and U.S. Highway 77 (56th Street in Lincoln).

And a look at county property records shows that there are 400 acres of undeveloped, city-owned land just east of the landfill in the vicinity of 70th Street and McKelvie Road.

Gage said that site would present less pushback because there are few homes in that area — and thus there would be fewer objections to the 24-hour lighting, noise and traffic generated by a prison.

The southern border of that plot is Interstate 80, a convenient barrier to any encroaching development from northeast Lincoln, and a freeway that provides easy access for families visiting inmates.

By contrast, the site announced two weeks ago by state officials at 112th and Adams Streets, has housing developments within 1 1/2 miles, and sits next door to a nature preserve.

prison site
Some think this parcel of land owned by the City of Lincoln, just north of Interstate 80 and next to the city landfill, would be a better site for a planned state prison. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

“People just don’t want to — hate to say it — they don’t want to live next to a prison,” Gage said.

For most of the past few days, City of Lincoln officials have remained mum on whether the city-owned land east of the landfill was the site the city had rejected as the state’s preferred site for the state prison.

Initially, a spokesman for the Lincoln mayor, in response to queries by the Examiner, said Tuesday to “be patient.” A couple hours later, the joint press conference was announced by the governor’s office.

It all implies that a change in location, or some kind of reconsideration, is in the works.

prison land
Just north of Interstate 80 in Lincoln, the city owns more than 400 acres of land east of its landfill — land some say would be a better location for a new state prison. (Screenshot from Lancaster County GIS map)

It wasn’t difficult this week to find Lincoln-area residents and officials who think a new state prison would be better situated elsewhere, including north of I-80, farther away from current development.

At a meeting Saturday, nearby residents, discussed the potential for a lawsuit to block the 112th and Adams Streets site. Monday night, citizens complained at the Lincoln City Council meeting, with some saying they would prefer the site near the landfill.

Lincoln City Council member James Michael Bowers, who represents northeast Lincoln, said he’s frustrated there hasn’t been more transparency about why the site northeast of Lincoln was chosen, rather than other location.

He said that if it was up to him, the state would save some money and build the new prison on land it already owns in south Lincoln, next to the prison the new facility is designed to replace, the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary. (About 140 acres of state-owned land lies south of the State Pen, though it is dissected by a railroad line. The proposed prison site is costing $17 million.)

Bowers added, however, that if a prison has to be built in northeast Lincoln, the landfill site would be preferred.

Away from homes, but close to workforce

Gage, who inspects prisons for national accreditation by the American Correctional Association, said that ideally, a prison should be located some distance from homes and development, but close enough to medical facilities and workforce and within easy access for family visits.

In that respect, sites in Lincoln are ideal, he said — there are already 500-some prison employees who work at the State Penitentiary, and it’s right next to the Interstate.

The best site, according to Gage, would have been near Omaha, where most of the families of inmates live. But he said there has been pushback in the past from Omaha officials about locating a prison there that houses maximum-security inmates. The proposed prison would house a mixture of maximum, medium and minimum-security prisoners.

prairie pines
Hundreds of schoolchildren and families visit the Prairie Pines Nature Preserve each year, a forest that sits just east of the proposed site of a new state prison. (Courtesy of Prairie Pines)

One group quietly complaining about the 112th and Adams location are fans of the Prairie Pines Nature Preserve, a forest filled with hiking trails, wildlife and garden plots just east of the proposed prison.

The 145-acre refuge was donated in 1992 by Walt Bagley, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor, and his wife, Virginia, to the University of Nebraska Foundation.

Fun runs, music festivals, Boy Scout jamborees and regular nature hikes for families and schoolchildren have been held at Prairie Pines. Fans of the preserve worry that the bright lights and noise of a prison would ruin the park and that expansion of roads would mean taking portions of the preserve.

“It’s all speculation, but it may mean there’s less family-oriented type things out there. I’m just not sure,” said John Erixson, head of the Nebraska Forest Service, which manages Prairie Pines.

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