Prison proposal worth investigating, even with price tag

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Kenai Peninsula Borough officials should continue to aggressively pursue plans for Alaska's first private prison.

But they should do so with their eyes wide open and a willingness to learn from those who have already traveled down this road.

The project's biggest plus for the borough is obvious: a clean industry that will create an estimated 250 to 300 new jobs in the community.

That alone is reason enough for the borough to play an active role in locating a private prison here.

There are other good arguments, however, for building a private prison on the peninsula, including the opportunity to give privatization of state services a chance to prove itself.

Ever since Alaska has had to tighten its belt to deal with a decrease in oil revenues, there has been talk of letting private businesses run some state services -- much of it emanating from the peninsula. It's time to take the discussion a step further; a private prison on the peninsula is one such step.

Surely, if it's acceptable to send Alaskans to a private prison in Arizona, it is far better to send them to a private prison in their home state. The peninsula offers the advantage of at least two viable locations -- adjacent to the Wildwood and Spring Creek correctional centers.

The pluses of a private prison are not reason enough, however, for officials to close their eyes to potential problems and concerns that a private prison raises.

They need to listen to -- and address -- residents' fears on this issue. They need to hear from public employees worried about what privatization means for the future of their jobs. They need to heed lessons learned from those who have succeeded and failed in private prison ventures.

Questions about the project should not be construed as criticism. Red flags should not be treated as red herrings. Requests to "go slow" should not be misread as pleas to "abandon ship."

Spirited discussion of the pros and cons of a private prison on the peninsula should be considered a prerequisite to the final decision -- whatever it is.

Because the project would be a state "first," there are bound to be stumbling blocks, glitches and more than a few rough patches to smooth. That doesn't mean the project isn't worth pursuing.

It does mean that the borough should proceed with caution -- as it should anytime it ventures where it hasn't gone before.

That's why we support the borough paying $150,000 for consulting services as it explores the feasibility of an 800- to 1,000-bed medium security private prison on the peninsula. That expense early in the process could save the borough many times that amount in costly mistakes and regrets later. It also could more than pay for itself by ensuring the borough doesn't miss opportunities related to a private prison.

Questions of liability, public safety, prisoner safety and the potential increased demand on existing services and infrastructure still must be answered. Any contract related to a private prison will need to have all the "i"s dotted and the "t"s crossed. It must be clear who's responsible for what.

A private prison should be built based on its merits. Politics and personalities should not be allowed to derail the project. The minuses of a private prison should be addressed head on with solid research, but borough officials need to ensure that unfounded fears do not get the project off track.

So far, we have heard no compelling argument why the borough should not continue pursuing a private prison on the peninsula.

Ultimately, however, our desire would be that borough and state officials, business leaders and private citizens would tackle measures that would prevent the need for additional prison space with the same zeal they are pursuing the private prison. Programs that keep people out of prison, programs that develop strong families, programs that keep kids off drugs and alcohol and in school -- those are the kind of measures that create healthy, economically viable communities. The return of a community's investment in such measures also is potentially much greater than it is in building more prison space -- after all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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