Nebraska State Penitentiary caused worse damage than originally thought

LINCOLN, Nebraska — Officials from the state of Nebraska stated on Friday that a water main that ruptured at the ancient Nebraska State Penitentiary caused more damage than was initially assumed, and that it may disrupt inmate housing for a year or two.

According to Nate Bornemeier, the engineering administrator at the Nebraska Department of Corrections, the water leak caused a basement mechanical room to be flooded with nine feet of water and left behind mud that was up to two and a half feet deep.

The cell doors, heating and cooling systems, and the fire protection and surveillance cameras all had their own control panels housed in the mechanical room of the facility. Bornemeier noted that there is additional cause for concern regarding mold growth and damage to the foundation of a jail housing unit that was flooded.

Between one to two years.

He stated that as a result of the event, a housing unit at the State Penitentiary that housed 135 senior offenders as well as medium and maximum security inmates could be rendered inoperable for “the next one to two years.”

“That’s how long it could take to go through all of the stages,” Bornemeier said of the amount of time it could take to make the building suitable for occupation once more.

According to Laura Strimple, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, it might take up to six months just to get architects and engineers to evaluate the damage. Strimple also mentioned that problems with the supply chain are likely to delay the shipment of replacement equipment.

The leak could provide additional support for the calls made by Governor Pete Ricketts and other corrections officials to replace the State Penitentiary, which was built in 1869 and has housing units that date back to the 1980s. They are advocating for the construction of a new prison with 1,500 beds.

Cast-iron pipes rusted

The corrosion on the bottom of the cast-iron water pipe that caused the leak was, according to Bornemeier, a recurrent issue at the correctional facility where the pipe was located.

The water supply to the entire facility, which is the oldest in the state and houses approximately 1,300 prisoners, was cut off thirteen months ago due to another leak. This was a result of water main breaches that occurred in December 2017 and again in September 2018 on two consecutive days and in two distinct locations.

According to a state prison monitor, state documents suggest that prison authorities were seeking cash to fix the aged and leaky water mains at the State Pen as early as 2008. This information comes from the state.

Urge placed on replacement of the mains.

Because of the frequent breakdowns in the water mains, the Inspector General for Corrections, Doug Koebernick, recommended in a report that was published in 2018 about the State Pen that the agency develop a strategy to replace the water mains.

The agency suggested another costly project in 2021, one that would involve the replacement of the water mains and would cost $1.5 million. It was estimated at the time that the state’s correctional system had deferred maintenance needs amounting to a total of $60 million, of which the state penitentiary alone required $12.5 million.

The most recent breach will make it impossible for officials at the state jail to carry out their plans to construct a new wing at the Reception and Treatment Center that has utmost security. The 135 offenders who were relocated from the flooded housing unit at the State Penitentiary are currently being housed in the wing.

It was originally anticipated that the RTC wing would be placed into action this summer. This wing of the RTC was created for the state’s most disruptive inmates. However, because of the delays in building, that facility has remained vacant until this week, when it will begin housing the displaced offenders.

Replacement prison cost: $270 million

The inspection of the damaged housing unit and the cleanup and restoration of the water damage will take “a significant period of time,” according to the Deputy Director of Prisons Robert Madsen. This will result in the loss of 140 prison beds. According to him, this will also cause a delay in the utilization of the RTC wing for the purposes for which it was designed.

To take the place of the existing State Penitentiary, the Ricketts administration has suggested replacing it with a brand new facility somewhere in the general vicinity of Omaha and Lincoln that would have a price tag of approximately $270 million.

Critics argue that the prison won’t make a significant dent in the state’s decades-long problem with prison overcrowding and that there should be further consideration given to alternatives to the construction of more cells.

The Nebraska Legislature is scheduled to discuss and possibly vote on the prison’s final funding during its session in 2023, which will begin in the month of January.

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