Nebraska county looks to send prisoners to Kansas

Gage County Jail is outdated, according to the fire marshal, and has undergone numerous renovations in the last few years in an effort to meet standards. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Gage County Jail was built in the so-called lineary structure, with individual barred cells. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Washington County Jail in Kansas was built in the so-called pod structure, with all inmates visible from a cenral command room. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Inmate uniforms at Washington County Jail in Kansas. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Washington County Jail in Kansas was built in the so-called pod structure, with inmates living together in large, communal rooms. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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November 15, 2013 - 6:30am

Imagine committing a misdemeanor in Beatrice, Nebraska but serving your sentence in another state. If Gage County has its way, this could soon be a reality.

Gage County Jail in southeast Nebraska looks a lot like the kind of jails you see on TV. Guards’ belts are weighed down by dozens of thick brass keys, inmates reside in barred cells with clanging doors and chipped paint and sexually explicit graffiti leers from the walls of the poorly-lit gym.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Unlike Washington County Jail, the jail for Gage County in Nebraska is heavily reliant on metal keys. 


“This section you’re sitting in right now was built in 1917; it’s the original portion,” said Gage County Sheriff Millard Gustafson while giving a visitor a tour. “And so, we’ve been steadily just fixing things up in the jail, doing what we can to keep getting by, but it’s still, at the end of the day, an older facility. That’s just the bottom line.”

An $11.4 million bond in 2009 intended to build a new county jail failed with 80 percent of votes cast against it.

“It was pretty bad,” Gustafson said.

Since then, Gage County has spent more than $100,000 every year on updates, and last year, It spent an additional $80,000 on housing overflow inmates in other county jails.

“(Overflow happens) all the time” at the 30-bed jail, Gustafson said. “We’re down right now, we’ve got a breath of fresh air - I think we’re at 20 (people) or just a little under. But here not too long ago we were at 41 and shipping people out.”

Trying something different

Gage County is looking to save a little money this year by sending excess inmates not to nearby Nebraska counties, but to Kansas.

Washington County, just across the border, is asking for $35 per day per inmate, compared with the $45 to $65 Gustafson said Nebraska counties charge.

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2005, the most recent available, found about nine percent of the nation’s jails had inmates from other states. (Smaller, more recent surveys from the Bureau have echoed those findings.) Out-of-state inmates formed about one percent of those jails’ populations. 

Red Willow County in southwest Nebraska contracted with Decatur County, Kansas for not quite a decade because its century-old jail didn’t meet fire code standards and had to be closed.

Night and day facilities

While much of Gage County’s jail was built in 1977 or earlier, the jail in Washington County, Kansas is only six years old.

“It’s kind a departure from the way they used to do it once upon a time,” said Washington County Sheriff Justin Cordry.

He’s referring to the so-called “pod” structure of his jail versus the linear structure of jails like the one in Gage County. Instead of individual cells stacked next to each other and separated by bars, the pod structure places inmates into large common rooms with rows of bunk beds – kind of like a big dorm room, albeit with much smaller windows and a much less private bathroom.

This format not only cuts down on construction costs, Cordry said, but also improves security.

“I know a lot of people that still have, for lack of a better term, the linear jails, who say security, or risk to the corrections officers, is a big concern,” he said. “Because most of those still have, you know, not a solid steel door of any kind – they’ve still got the bars. So there’s so much tendency for an inmate to be able to reach out and grab an office or grab somebody that might be visiting. With this kind of design, you don’t have to worry about that.”

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

A staff member at Washington County Jail in Kansas demonstrates how the control board at the jail works. 


The pods form a semicircle around the command room, where the officers on duty can see everyone at the same time. A series of cameras provides even more range of vision, and a lightboard with buttons situated along a contour map of the jail allows the officers to control all doors remotely – no keys necessary.

While one of the pods at the time NET News visited housed around 10 inmates, the other was nearly empty.

“The jail was built kind of on the premise that there would be farming in of inmates,” Cordry said, “that would help pay for the bond issue.”

To that end, Cordry reached out to Gustafson after Washington County’s long-term contact with Kansas’ Sedgwick County ended. They’re currently waiting for approval from the Gage County attorney, Roger Harris.

No easy solution

Such arrangements are not without some controversy.

“When we had the contract with Sedgwick County, you would have some family members that, they didn’t want to drive three hours each way, if they’re from the Wichita area,” Cordry said.  

The distance between the Washington and Gage county seats is about 40 minutes, and both Cordry and Gustafson said they don’t anticipate concerns about travel. Red Willow, Nebraska County Sherriff Gene Mahon said no one complained about the distance to Decatur County, Kansas during their contract.

However, “There is some evidence to suggest that visitation and contact with possible supporting influences reduces recidivism,” said Ben Steiner, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The research he’s talking about looks at prison inmates, not jail inmates, but Steiner said the populations are fairly similar.  When relatives and family can’t interact with inmates on a regular basis, it can make the transition back to civilian life more difficult for both.

But Gustafson said his hands are tied. Unlike Red Willow County, where a bond to build a new jail also failed, he doesn’t want to go against the will of county residents; that’s what Red Willow county commissioners did, and their new jail is scheduled to be finished next summer.

Gustafson acknowledged, however, contracting to outside jails is a temporary solution. His vote is to explore the idea of a regional jail serving several counties, but any big changes like that take time, effort and, perhaps most importantly, money.

“It comes down to the board deciding, at what point in time do we think enough’s enough? Obviously this is something that’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take a while. It’s a major undertaking.”

Steiner agreed.

“This is cheaper in the short-term, but it doesn’t get rid of the problem.”

Overcrowded, outdated and without funding; Gage County Jail has to deal with it all. And with state prisons sitting at around 150 percent capacity, and looking to potentially keep more inmates at the county level, things could get worse before they get better.



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