Private prison team set

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

A team of four companies has set a course to partner with the Kenai Peninsula Borough to develop Alaska's first private prison.

Kenai Natives Association, Livingston Slone Inc., Neeser Construction/VECO Construction Joint Venture, and Corrections Group North -- a private corporation developed through an affiliation between Cornell Corrections of Alaska and Weimer Investments -- now face the hurdle of contract negotiations with the borough before continuing with the planning, promotion, design, construction and operation of a 800- to 1,000-bed medium

security correctional facility to house state inmates on the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai Natives Association's role is to focus on planning and educating the public about the project. Along with other team members, KNA intends to develop a training program to assist borough residents in qualifying for jobs resulting from the project. KNA also owns

the land being proposed for the prison site.

KNA's team includes Richard Segura, of Kenai, who has been KNA's president and CEO since 1997 and worked for Tesoro Petroleum Corporation from 1983 until 1992. Also on KNA's side is Michael Slezak, of Palmer, KNA's chief operating officer since 2000. Slezak's resume also includes a stint between 1999 and 2000 as chief executive officer for UMPCO , a company providing charitable gaming services; a six-year run from 1993 to 1999 as general manager for Rippie World, a gaming-related business; and a four-year executive directorship for Wasilla Area Seniors between 1989 and 1993.

Providing legal representation for KNA on this project is Kenai attorney Blaine Gilman. Gilman said the association's interest in the project stems from possible use of association land for the facility, as well as an opportunity to address needs of Alaska Native inmates.

"Obviously, besides the financial element, they are very concerned with the percentage of Native males who are incarcerated," said Gilman, adding that Natives account for approximately 35 percent of the state's inmate population, compared with 7 percent of the state's general population.

That focus has won support from the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Salamatof Tribal Council and the Ninilchik Traditional Council.

If (the prison) comes on (KNA's) property, what they're going to attempt to do is provide unique substance abuse services geared toward Native people, trying to reduce the recidivism rate," Gilman said.

The Kenai attorney said KNA's concerns also include the number of Native prisoners incarcerated in the private facility in Florence, Ariz. Alaska currently houses approximately 800 state inmates in the Arizona facility due to lack of in-state bed space.

"I think (the new prison) will probably bring a good portion of (those inmates) back," Gilman said.

After contract negotiation with the borough, Gilman said, passing the necessary legislation is the biggest step. Another hurdle will be the public hearing process.

"This is just a very complicated project," Gilman said. "Quite frankly, if any one of those (steps) fails, probably the project won't go forward."

Kenai Peninsula residents are familiar with the design firm Livingston Slone Inc., for its work on Kenai's Vintage Pointe Senior Housing and Seward's SeaLife Center, both of which earned the firm awards from the American Institute of Architects.

However, their projects in Alaska date back 25 years, include other award-winning structures, and also can be found in Point Lay, Fort Wainwright, Bethel, Kotzebue and Anchorage.

"And, actually, we've worked with all of these companies," said Tom Livingston of the other prison project team members. "Starting with Cornell, we've done a number of their halfway houses around the state. Neeser just finished construction of a new state public health lab and medical examiners facility in Anchorage, and we were the designers for that."

Livingston also said his firm worked with VECO on plans to turn Ft. Greely into a private prison. Gaining a spot on the winning team isn't the first gate the design firm has had to pass on this project.

"KNA actually solicited proposals from other firms," Livingston said. "Ours was selected. So that's how we ended up joining forces with them."

Livingston will lead the design team, pulling from his firm's expertise as well as from the Justice Facilities Group, Wince-Corthell-Bryson, Reid Middleton, and RSA Engineering.

"The good news is that we've got good relationships with all the companies," Livingston said. "We're looking forward to moving forward."

Claiming 28 years of experience, Neeser Construction is currently involved in building the new Anchorage jail, a $50 million project partnering the Municipality of Anchorage with the Alaska Department of Corrections. Under the direction of president Gerald Neeser, the company has designed and built other projects, including medical facilities and community centers.

VECO is no stranger to the Kenai Peninsula, having been involved in the peninsula's oil and gas industry since 1968. According to information the company provided in the bid package, VECO has more than 300 employees on the peninsula, and "their capacity allows them to design and construct projects in excess of $3 billion."

Corrections Group North is headed by Frank Prewitt. The former commissioner of Alaska's Department of Corrections, Prewitt authorized the contract with the private prison in Arizona in 1994. In the bid package, the relationship with the private out-of-state provider is referred to as "the successful Arizona contract."

However, if the prison being proposed for the Kenai Peninsula is built, it will bring that contract to an end.

In 1995, Prewitt contracted with Corrections Group North to begin promoting an in-state private prison. Since then, South Anchorage, Point MacKenzie and Seward have been considered as possible locations. The most recent site, Ft. Greely, which actually gained legislative approval but has virtually stalled after encountering two lawsuits, community opposition and a change in local government.

Weimer Investments is headed up by William Weimar, who founded Allvest Inc. in 1984 and operated five pre-release facilities for the state. In 1998, Weimar sold Allvest to Cornell Corrections.

Running at the front of the pack is Cornell Companies Inc., based in Houston, Texas. A well-known name in the private prison industry, Cornell is headed up by Steve Logan, who has been with the company since 1993 and has been the company's president and chief executive officer since 1999. The company has facilities in 13 states.

A resolution approving the agreement with Cornell for the planning and promotion of the prison project is on the agenda for the next meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.

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