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The Nebraska prison system is giving hundreds of inmates an opportunity to request a transfer to finish their sentences in their "home" states, at no cost to those who qualify. 

The Department of Correctional Services confirmed Monday it sent letters to 601 inmates last week saying prison officials recognized completing all or part of their sentences in their home state would allow some of them to be closer to family and friends. 

"Having strong, supportive relationships is important both during and after your incarceration," Chief of Operations Diane Sabatka-Rine said in the letter. "So we would like to offer you the opportunity to be considered for an interstate transfer to your home state at no cost to you."

She encouraged inmates to take advantage of what could be an "excellent opportunity."

The department appears to be using a creative approach to reducing overcrowding.

Sabatka-Rine asked anyone who is interested to send their requests by Dec. 31. 

One Nebraska inmate reported to a family member that five to seven others in his gallery had received the letters, and he believed it was "an effort to beat the 2020 overcrowding mandate."

He was talking about a 2015 law that mandates the governor declare a prison overcrowding emergency if the population isn’t below 140% on July 1, 2020. The population has hovered at about 160% of design capacity more recently. Last month, Department of Corrections Director Scott Frakes reported the Nebraska State Penitentiary was at 190% capacity. 

He has told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee at least a couple of times that he doesn't have any reason to believe the department will meet that deadline. 

Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop said the letters seeking volunteers to move to a home state prison demonstrated the department is trying to find ways to reduce the population, and could be a short-term strategy, depending on how many people respond, something like the strategy of contracting with county jails for the housing of some inmates. 

"It came as a surprise to me," Lathrop said. "I certainly don't have any objection to it, or any reason to have a problem with it." 

But, he said, it is further evidence that Nebraska prisons are at a crisis level. 

Frakes told the committee earlier this month the prisons that house male inmates were about 150 inmates from reaching the point of not being able to house any more men that come their way.

"All he needs is some surge in inmates coming in and he's got a huge problem," Lathrop said. 

So if 100 of those 600 inmates get transfers, that's 100 more spaces that Frakes has to take care of those coming into the system, he said. 

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The letters were sent to inmates whose files indicated Nebraska was not their home state. That could mean they were born in another state, lived outside of Nebraska before going to prison here, or were living in another state when they were arrested in Nebraska. 

Transfers, if approved, would be carried out through Nebraska state statutes and the Interstate Corrections Compact Act, said Laura Strimple, department chief of staff. The compact is detailed in Nebraska Revised Statutes 29-2639-40.

Inmates must request to be transferred, Strimple said, and it is completely voluntary. And they must meet certain criteria to be eligible. That would include having no excessive misconduct reports while in prison.

It would be up to the receiving state to approve the transfer, she said. But once the transfer is approved, housing costs would fall to those states.

When asked if other states, many of which also have overcrowding problems, would want to accept any of Nebraska's, Strimple said the states must make their own determinations, based on their system requirements and policies.

Also, any inmate sentenced in Nebraska, in order to be eligible for parole, must meet this state's requirements for that parole. Inmates would be brought back to Nebraska at the appropriate time to complete any clinical treatment or programming that is recommended for parole, she said.

Lathrop said he would think there have to be rules in place that would allow such things as accumulation of good-time days at the same rate as in Nebraska prisons. 

Read the letter to inmates about seeking transfer to 'home states'

November 13, 2019

A review of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) electronic database indicates that Nebraska is not your "home" state. This may mean that you were born in another state, that you lived outside of Nebraska prior to your incarceration, or that you were living in another state when you were arrested in Nebraska.

We recognize that completing all or part of your sentence in your "home" state would allow you to be closer to your family and friends. Having strong, supportive relationships is important both during and after your incarceration. So, we would like to offer you the opportunity to be considered for an interstate transfer to your "home" state at no cost to you.

If you are interested in pursuing this opportunity, you may use interoffice mail to send an Inmate Interview Request form to "NDCS Chief of Operations/Interstate Transfer." In your request, tell me your "home" state and that you are willing to start the interstate transfer process. This request has to be approved by NDCS and your "home" state.

This could be an excellent opportunity for you and I encourage you to take advantage of it. Please send your request by December 31, 2019.

Diane Sabatka-Rine

Chief of Operations

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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