Whittier prison bill clears first committee

Posted: Friday, March 08, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill calling for a private prison in Whittier cleared its first hurdle Thursday, passing the House State Affairs Committee 4-2.

Committee Chairman John Coghill, R-North Pole questioned the size of the 1,200-bed prison called for in House Bill 498. But he said he wanted to advance it to the Finance Committee.

''Certainly this is not the end of the discussion,'' Coghill said.

The measure calls for the state to negotiate a 25-year contract with the city of Whittier to house state inmates. Whittier, in turn, would contract with a private firm, Cornell Companies, to build and operate the 1,200-bed prison.

Rep. Hugh Fate, R-Fairbanks, joined Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, in opposing the bill.

Fate questioned whether Whittier is a good location. The town of 192, located an hour from Anchorage, is accessible only by a toll tunnel.

Fate said construction costs would be high, it would be difficult for relatives to visit and the town is at risk of avalanches and tsunamis.

''Because somebody has stepped up to the plate doesn't make it the right place,'' Fate said.

Other areas are also interested in having a private prison, he said. Metlakatla has expressed interest, and an economic development group in Fairbanks has started discussing the idea.

Fate also questioned whether Cornell could deliver on its promise to provide culturally relevant rehabilitation to all Native inmates by using only the Southeast-based Alaska Native Brotherhood.

Rep. Jeannette James, R-North Pole, said the bill doesn't mean a prison will be built, it just authorizes the state to negotiate a contract.

''Personally, I would really like to see private prisons succeed,'' James said. ''I think what we have is not currently working as I'd like to see it work.''

But Crawford said if a 1,200-bed prison is built in Whittier, he fears the state won't build other jails or prisons. He said prison space is also needed in places such as Bethel for prisoners who have not been convicted or sentenced.

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