Private prison bill faces competing proposals

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A legislative proposal for a private prison in Whittier calls for a bigger facility than one turned down by voters last year in Kenai. The legislation faces two competing proposals for adding prison space in Alaska.

The House Finance Committee introduced the bill Wednesday to build and operate a 1,200-bed prison in Whittier, one day after the Whittier City Council approved a contract with Cornell Corrections.

Unlike last year, however, when an 800-bed Kenai plan passed the Legislature, this year two rival bills would instead expand regional state prisons and jails.

One measure, sought by Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, calls for allowing municipalities to add more than 1,100 beds to seven regional state-run prisons. The $170 million package includes 370 beds in her own district.

Also this week, Gov. Tony Knowles introduced his own $117 million bill to expand prisons and jails around the state.

Last year, state corrections officials said they preferred such a solution to overcrowding in Alaska's jails, but said they were resigned to the Legislature's four-year push for a private prison.

''There are some different dynamics here. I don't know how this will play out,'' said Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, who represents Whittier in the House. Harris, a longtime Teamster, said he supports the bill but has concerns about union hire with a private prison.

Because it lacks prison space, the state houses about 800 prisoners at a private prison in Arizona. That effort costs the state around $18 million a year, state officials say.

All the new proposals would cost the state more than keeping the prisoners in Arizona.

Backers of the Whittier plan say a private, centralized prison would be cheaper to build and operate than new regional state facilities.

But state prison officials say expanding regional prisons would put inmates closer to trial courts and their home communities.

The Legislature has approved private prisons for Delta Junction and then Kenai. Both plans later died in the face of local resistance.

After Kenai Peninsula voters turned down a Cornell plan last fall, the company met with officials in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Nome. On Tuesday, just as the Whittier council was voting unanimously to go ahead, Wrangell residents voted 536-196 to drop a local private prison effort.

In Whittier, population 182, little opposition has surfaced, said Mayor Ben Butler.

The town can be reached only through a tunnel with limited operating hours in winter.

''We're hoping this will be the driving force to convince the state to relax on tolls and get a more liberal schedule,'' city manager Matt Rowley said.

Whittier considered proposals from two firms before choosing to team up with Cornell, which had also been in line to run the Delta Junction and Kenai prisons.

Cornell and its partners, particularly the construction firm Veco, are heavyweight players in the Legislature, hiring top lobbyists and contributing heavily to political campaigns.

Cornell says it can build a Whittier prison for around $80 million, including the costs of new sewer and water systems, Rowley said.

The House Finance bill would authorize the Corrections Department to negotiate a five-year operating contract with Whittier for around $90 daily per bed. Construction costs would be paid off over a 25-year period.

Knowles' bill would add 400 prison beds in Palmer and Seward, 150 jail beds in Fairbanks and Bethel, and replace community jails in Kodiak, Kotzebue, Dillingham and the North Slope Borough.

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