Spirited community debate is healthy and enables the open minded to see the world from another point of view. When the social and economic stakes are as high as with the proposed private prison, opponents and proponents owe the public a duty of full and accurate disclosures when relying upon the media to carry their message.
The state employee correctional officer union recently entered the public debate with an article entitled "Private prison won't save money." Intending no disrespect to our many friends and neighbors who work at the Wildwood Correctional Center, the union opinion was a disservice to our community in substance and tone.
Through a maze of unsubstantiated historical inaccuracy, the union makes four basic claims that require rebuttal if the community dialogue is to be based upon truth and fair representations of fact:
First, the union states "the wages paid by privateers will be substandard for our community." The private prison will be built with public funds and many other permanent jobs, such as clerks, maintenance workers, electricians, plumbers, education specialists, treatment and health care workers will be contractual or salaried at, or above, the local wage and benefit scale for the private sector. Cornell historically pays correctional officers at, or near, state hourly rates depending on experience.
The state pays an average of nearly $17,000 above the base annual salary for journeymen correctional officers' health and retirement benefits. While the Cornell benefit package is excellent by private sector standards, the state of Alaska's 38 percent benefit and 20-year retirement package for correctional officers is extraordinary by any standards.
Second, the union says that the operating costs of the private prison will be "over $15 per day higher than what it costs to run our local prison." The average daily operating cost, per bed, at the Wildwood Correctional Center is $67.77. To arrive at the total daily cost for Wildwood, costs that are paid from the department's central office must be added to the daily institutional rate. Those costs are $5.93 for inmate programs, $16.69 for inmate health care, $4.08 for administrative support and $6.23 for statewide indirect costs. These costs are all based on a daily, per inmate, average. The total, actual cost per day, per inmate at the Wildwood Correctional Center is $100.70.
Steve Logan, president of Cornell Companies, reports that Cornell facilities, on average, save local government 10 to 15 percent. The remarkable fact is that the private sector operating cost includes debt service. Neither the state nor the union factor long-term debt or capital expenses into the reported daily operating cost. When apples are compared to apples there is simply no comparison between the cost of a private prison and a similar state prison bed.
Third, the union says, "Cornell has a record of overlooking qualification standards in order to staff their prisons." Cornell operates 72 facilities in 13 states with a total bed capacity of 14,845. Over 4,000 of the beds are medium security, or higher, prison beds. Totaled, Cornell manages over three times as many offenders as the state of Alaska Department of Corrections and twice as many high security prisoners.
According to the Corrections Yearbook, Cornell's escape rate is 16 times better than the average escape rate for public facilities and nearly all of Cornell's prisons are accredited by the American Correctional Association. This cannot happen by ignoring hiring and training standards. By comparison, few state of Alaska prisons are accredited.
Finally, the union says "the issue is, and always will be, a matter of public safety." That is correct. But to imply that state prisons are safer than private prisons is disingenuous. As recent as last year, research by the Western Association of State Governments found that private prisons are operated as well and as safely as public prisons.
The private prison project is the largest economic opportunity to present itself to the Kenai Peninsula for over 20 years. We should applaud the dedication and the vision of Borough Mayor Dale Bagley and the assembly in how they have handled and promoted the private prison. They are working in the best interest of borough, and through their efforts, hundreds of residents may obtain temporary construction and permanent prison jobs.
This community needs to stand up and be heard. Let the assembly know that you support the private prison and that the public employee correctional union's position is contrary to the best interest of the borough. The next hearing relating to the private prison is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Borough Building in Soldotna. Let your opinion be known.
Blaine D. Gilman is a Kenai attorney who represents the Kenai Natives Association, one of four companies which has teamed together to develop Alaska's first private prison.
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