Private prison bill now in House

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Immediately following the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assem-bly's decision Friday to enter into contract negotiations with Cornell Companies for the planning, design and construction of Alaska's first private prison, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, introduced legislation to bring the state of Alaska into the picture.

On Monday, the freshman legislator introduced House Bill 149, "an act relating to correctional facility space and to authorize the Department of Corrections to enter into an agreement to lease facilities for the confinement and care of prisoners within the Kenai Peninsula Borough."

"We've been getting ready, waiting on the borough to make the decision that it is something they want to be involved with," Chenault said.

If passed, the bill will direct the state to house persons committed to the care of the Commissioner of Corrections, currently Margaret Pugh, and provides for a minimum 20-year lease agreement. As introduced, it also requires that a third party, selected through a competitive process, complete the construction and operation of the facility. The third party also would be responsible for providing custody, care and discipline services for inmates.

As spelled out in the legislation, the lease:

n Must provide a minimum of 800 prison beds;

n Must contain terms providing for termination of the contract by the commissioner for cause; and

n Prohibits the commissioner from entering into an agreement with any agency unable to provide or cause to be provided a degree of custody, care and discipline similar to that required by the laws of the state.

Chenault is currently the only sponsor of the legislation, but anticipated other legislators will want to be included.

"I believe I'll have a couple other co-sponsors, but we dropped it this morning and it's getting late in the session," he said. "We had to get it moving."

The Nikiski legislator said Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, also have shown an interest in the project that will help meet Alaska's prison needs. Currently, some 800 Alaska inmates are housed in an Arizona facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America.

"I think (the legislation) has a good chance," Chenault said of the bill's passage. "I've talked with people since I've been here. It's a need that needs to be filled. I believe that if we're going to have a prison and we're going to send people in the state to a prison, we need to have it in our state.

"The more of state money we keep in the state providing service for people in our state, the better off we'll be."

The concern of a private vs. public prison facility has been raised at several recent borough assembly meetings; however, the Legislature has directed Correc-tions to pursue use of privately operated facilities.

"Anything's possible," Chenault said of a change in policy from private to public. "But I don't believe (it will happen). That's not the direction that the Legislature has given the department (of Corrections)."

He said Corrections was aware of the borough's interest in constructing and operating a facility on the peninsula.

"They knew what was going on," he said. "They've been in involved in the process along they way."

After introduction on Monday, HB 149 was referred to House State Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, and the House Finance Committee, co-chaired by Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Bill Williams, R-Ketchikan. Lancaster also sits on the Finance Committee.

"I'd like to have the public comment on it, either positively or negatively," Chenault said. "It's a project that I believe will bring a considerable amount of jobs to our area to put our people to work. It gives one more leg to stand on. We have fisheries, tourism and the oil industry, but a fourth leg will help our economy.

"And, like I say, I'd like to hear people's pros or cons on it," he said.

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