Proposals pit public, private prisons

Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A proposal to build a 1,200-bed private prison in Whittier is running into competition for state funding from a rival 1,200-bed prison proposed for Sutton in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Both the private and public prison plans have powerful backers in Juneau. Gov. Frank Murkowski has not yet weighed in, but administration officials appear to be leaning toward a state-run facility. Murkowski said during the campaign that he opposed building a large private prison in Alaska.

''There's no indication of a change within the new administration or the Department of Corrections,'' said Portia Parker, assistant commissioner of corrections. ''I don't see how you're going to run a facility economically in Whittier. It's going to be very, very difficult.''

The administration plans to lay out new cost comparisons of the two approaches at a legislative hearing Thursday on prison construction, Parker said.

Since 1995, the state has been at a stalemate over ways to add prison beds for Alaska's growing inmate population. Currently about 650 inmates are housed in a private prison in Arizona. Many criminologists and politicians say their rehabilitation would be better served if they were held in Alaska, closer to their families and communities.

Private-prison backers have had the upper hand in Juneau, primarily on a cost-savings argument. But their plans were thwarted by local opposition in South Anchorage, Delta Junction and Kenai.

A contract for a Whittier private prison passed in the state House last year but died in the Senate. Private-prison advocates say their approach can save the state $10 million a year.

''I really think this is all about cost,'' said Frank Prewitt, a former state corrections commissioner working for Cornell Companies, the Houston-based private-prison firm. ''After eight years' experience with private prisons in Arizona, (Alaskans) know those issues about quality of service and safety are not relevant.''

Under Cornell's plan, the city of Whittier would finance and own the new prison with bonds guaranteed by a long-term state contract. But Cornell has lost some powerful legislative backers to electoral turnover. Their new champion is freshman Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, whose Hillside district includes Whittier.

''The governor has said he'll be open and receptive to consider all suggestions from the Legislature,'' said Hawker, who introduced HB 55, the private-prison bill. He said opposition to the private prison has come mainly from unions afraid of losing jobs.

Hawker faces a formidable bipartisan list of sponsors for the Mat-Su proposal, SB 65, headed by Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, the co-chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The Mat-Su area wants the jobs from prison expansion but has been clear about not wanting a private prison, Mat-Su Borough manager John Duffy said.

''We believe that correctional facilities should be operated by the public sector. It's just like state troopers,'' Duffy said.

The new prison would be adjacent to an existing correctional facility outside Sutton.

Critics also have objected to Cornell's take-it-or-leave-it offer on what would be the largest state-private contract in Alaska history, worth $1 billion over its 25-year life span. Some say such a major private contract should be competitively bid. The measure calls for the state, Whittier and Cornell to work out details, such as design of the $80 million medium-security facility, after the contract is approved.

Former Gov. Tony Knowles advocated expanding regional jails and prisons in Alaska as a way of keeping inmates nearer their families and improving chances for rehabilitation.

The Murkowski administration has dropped the Knowles advocacy of wider regional expansion, opting instead for a large centralized prison, Parker said. A single facility would be cheaper, she said.

A 1,200-bed prison would be twice the size of Alaska's largest prison, the maximum-security Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, which houses 575 inmates.

Prewitt said he's happy now for the chance to make what he sees as an easy comparison between the two large prison proposals.

''We've finally got this mirror-image, apples-to-apples comparison,'' he said.

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