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Inmate farming: How transferring jail inmates can lead to revenue


LINCOLN–For Hall County Corrections Director Todd Bahensky, the empty beds in the county jail are more than just a frame and mattress. They’re a source of revenue.

The jail, built in 2008, has 320 beds. Bahensky said the facility hasn’t faced overcrowding issues since the new building opened, even with the jail housing more than just local inmates. A report from the Nebraska Crime Commission said the facility’s average daily population in 2016 was 161 detainees.

The county houses inmates from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the State of Nebraska, other county jails and other federal agencies. The jail typically has more than 100 inmates each day from agencies outside the county.

With a price tag of $88 a day for each inmate, the practice brought in a large percentage of the jail’s $3 million revenue last year, according to Bahensky.

“The fact that we even push capacity is a situation we put upon ourselves.” Bahensky said. “The idea is we’re going to build this (much space to grow into) for the future. However, in the short term, we’re going to turn some of that extra space, those extra beds, into revenue.”

It’s no news that the prisons in Nebraska are facing overcrowding issues; the U.S. Department of Justice found that the state had the fourth most overcrowded prison system in the country in 2014. While the state has made efforts to ease populations within the prison systems, some county sheriffs are concerned that overcrowding is simply being shifted to county jails.

For jails pushing their capacity levels, farming out inmates can be costly. Jail commander Dan Shukis said the Sarpy County Jail has overcrowding issues; a report from the Nebraska Crime Commission shows that the average daily population in the facility in 2016 was 172.

To help ease overcrowding, Shukis said the jail farms out anywhere from 30 to 80 inmates each day. This cost the jail $1.2 million last year, about 17.6 percent of its $6.3 million budget. The inmates are sent to other county jails, including those in Cass County, Douglas County, Seward County, Saline County and Saunders County. The Nebraska Diagnostic and Evaluation Center also houses extra inmates on occasion.

But sometimes, those jails are full, too.

“It’s hit and miss,” Shukis said. “Cass County helps us out a lot, but every other week, they’re full, so they can’t take anybody … when that happens, we just end up keeping them and going overcrowded. It’s an issue throughout the metro area.”

When all of the neighboring jails are full, inmates end up sleeping in boats — plastic half-tubs lined with mattresses.

Sarpy County’s looking to build a new wing to the jail or new facility altogether. An architect has been working on options for more than a year, and the county will make a decision sometime in January. A small wing could add 48 beds at $10 million. A larger addition would bring 200 more beds at $50 million. A new facility would cost anywhere between $50 to $80 million.

With a growing population, Shukis hopes the county votes to build a new facility.

“I believe we need a new facility,” Shukis said. “Our jail’s just not built for community corrections, for services and things like tha, or direct supervision.”

Even with overcrowding issues of its own, Sarpy County took in 56 state prisoners between January and September of 2017. Shukis attributed these inmates’ relocation to Legislative Bill 605, which passed in 2015 to help overcrowding in state prisons.

But some are worried that it’s had a ripple effect and spread overcrowding to local county jails. According to the Nebraska Crime Commission, the average daily population for the total number of adult detainees in Nebraska was 3,476 in 2016, a 12.3 percent increase from the previous year.

“The state’s trying to reduce its population, but in effect, it’s increasing ours because of this law,” Shukis said.

Bahensky said this may change with state prisons taking action to house more of their own inmates. In mid-November, the Hall County Jail only housed 15 inmates from the state prison.

“They’re trying to solve their own problems and not farm their problems out,” Bahensky said. “They say by the end of this calendar year they’ll be done, but we do have an agreement with them that runs through our fiscal year, which ends in June.”

While this could help overcrowded jails, like the facility in Sarpy County, it’s a lack of revenue for Hall County.

To fill in a potential gap in revenue, Bahensky said the jail will rent out more rooms to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The jail made about $500,000 renting cells to ICE inmates during the first financial quarter of 2017. That’s about 62.5 percent of their quarterly revenue.

Bahensky said that recently ICE has “started using quite a few beds … The state was quite a bit more than anyone else, and now it’s flip-flopped.”

This story is the third of a three-part series on overcrowding in Nebraska county jails. 

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