As recently as late 2008, Terry Kamprath was a leading advocate of building a 70-bed jail in Seward County at a potential cost of up to $15 million.

Some of the beds were meant to ease over-crowding. The rest were envisioned as parking places for federal and other prisoners from outside the county who could be boarded at money-making rates.

In early 2010, Seward County's jail administrator feels differently about building something big.

“I think, at the present time, we're kind of glad we didn't,” Kamprath said Wednesday. “Trying to fill beds is kind of tough.”

He suggests, for example, that demand is slipping for places to hold federal prisoners in adjoining counties until sentencing in Lincoln and Omaha.

Now, 15 months after the jail proposal bombed at the ballot box, Seward County commissioners and their law-enforcement team are talking about a much more modest option.

It would move Sheriff Joe Yocum and his staff across the street to another county-owned building. Their vacated space and an addition to the existing jail could boost beds to about 40.

If that happens, it could wipe out the typical six-figure annual expense of housing Seward County prisoners outside the county. But it would stop well short of ambitious answers to over-crowding in Saunders, Saline, Cass, Platte and other nearby counties.

The good cholesterol In Saunders County, where the 152-bed jail will be a year old in March, Sheriff Kevin Stukenholtz compares housing prisoners from inside the county and outside the county to bad cholesterol and good cholesterol.

The outsiders, even though some of them come from the ranks of rival gangs and white supremacists, are the good cholesterol.

“What happened is our jail budget was about $1 million in the old facility and it generated no income,” Stukenholtz said. “Our budget now is about $2 million and we're probably generating between $1.2 million and $1.5 million.”

And since the current census of occupied beds in a jail seven times the size of Seward's is running at about 85-90, there's the potential to do much better.

If, for example, beds occupied by outsiders averaged out to 100 per year, that would add up to $1.8 million.

But what if occupancy stalls out along the way well short of capacity? “It's difficult to predict,” Stukenholtz said, “but in the future, I don't believe we'll think we built this too big.”

Back in Seward County, Sheriff Yocum sees thinking small as the right thinking for the times.

“We brought up the issue of overcrowding and needing additional bed space back in 2004 - that we needed a bigger facility,” Yocum said. “Since that time, these others have all opened up or built additional facilities, and we've not kept up with that kind of addition. But we've relied on them.”

Saunders County, for example, has gone from exporting to importing and now houses Seward County imports.

“Since we are a late bloomer,” Yocum said, “it may not be advantageous for us to look at building a huge addition on.”

The big picture

In the big picture in Southeast Nebraska, county officials who have opted not to try to expand would be the exception to the trend. If expansion hasn't happened, it's more likely because voters said no.

Besides Seward County, thumbs turned downward in Nemaha and Lancaster in 2008 and voters in Gage County votes against financing a new jail in 2009.

Lancaster eventually found a way to go forward with a $65 million project that could eventually accommodate up to 1,000 beds.

Saline County was among the first area counties to choose a much more aggressive approach to jail space.

Prior to 2002, there was room in Wilber for only six inmates. That went to 48 that year with construction of a new jail on the southern outskirts and to 89 with an expansion in 2007.

“It was just a prime time,” said Sheriff Alan Moore, “because bed space was so scarce throughout the state of Nebraska.”

Now prime time may have passed. “We are staying full,” Moore said, “but we can see, at this stage of the game at least, that the massive need for bed space is not like it was.”

As of Thursday, the prisoner mix is typically 20 to 30 from Saline County and the rest from outside. In Saunders County, there are currently about 20 inmates serving Saunders County sentences and 70 from the outside.

“It's kind of like a retail business in a community,” Moore said. “You don't want too many of those retail businesses popping up.”

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