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Odd invitation from Nebraska jail: Spend the night for $30

A couple square meals, brand new bedding on a four-inch-thick mattress, and the chance to benefit children's charities are attracting some law-abiding Nebraskans to spend a night in the unlikeliest of places: behind bars.

Starting Thursday night at 6 p.m., the 90-square-foot cells at the new Lancaster County Adult Detention Facility in Lincoln, Neb., will be filled with voluntary inmates -- 200 people from the community who signed up for a night in the pen. The cost for participants is $30 for an overnight stay.

The event also will function as a dry run for the facility.

"We want to use 'compliant' inmates," Lancaster County Corrections Director Michael Thurber said. "We'll use the intercoms, we'll see how the camera angles are, how the views from our control center are. We'll use the lights, we'll run the water, we'll see how everything drains." 

Participants will arrive at 6 p.m. and leave at 7 a.m. the following morning, starting Thursday night of this week and running through Saturday night. Their fee goes to The Child Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that helps victims of child abuse, and Operation Santa Claus, which gives toys to needy children.

The schedule for the overnight stay includes a tour of the jail at 8:30 p.m., lockdown at 10 p.m., lights out at 11 p.m., and a light breakfast at 6 a.m. the following morning. Participants will be fingerprinted and have their mugshot taken upon arrival. They will be invited to wear jail jumpsuits, but can wear street clothing if they want.

The deadline for signing up to stay the night in jail has passed, but Thurber said free tours of the jail -- which is scheduled to open in the summer -- will continue through April. Among the 200 people who are spending the night: criminal justice college students, book clubs, a local TV host, and a state senator.

Corrections staff will do a dry run of everything exactly as they would with real inmates.

"I want to see the cell doors working. I want to know they shut," Thurber said. "We want them to tell us what they're hearing in the cells. How's the sound echoing in here? We're just trying to break it in. That's the best way to see how our systems work." 

Dinner, however, might be a tad classier.

"There might be a chicken-fried steak," he said. "There's a vegetable, some bread, some type of a pudding or a dessert. There might be a chicken entree as well. I haven't seen the exact entree yet. But I know mashed potatoes, green beans, maybe a little salad. We're probably jazzing the meal up just a little bit."

The nearly 300,000-square-foot facility has 779 beds and will replace an overcrowded detention center in downtown Lincoln. Participants in the overnight stays must be 18 or older, but anyone can take a free tour of the jail. 

The event has raised $600 for charity so far; others have pledged to donate checks during their tours later in the month, which are free, Thurber said.

Lynn Ayers, the executive director of the Lincoln-based Children Advocacy Center, said Thurber contacted her four or five years ago, when the jail was still being built, about the idea of teaming up for the charity. 

"I was excited about it then and glad it came to happen. It's kind of a cool idea," she said, adding that as a nonprofit, her organization does special events all the time -- though this was one of the more unusual partnerships.

Unlike actual inmates, participants in the overnight stays are allowed to leave before their stay ends in the morning.