Letters to the Editor

Posted: Monday, March 19, 2001

Private, for-profit prisons make bad public policy, don't serve justice

Privatization proponents are pushing their latest scheme to warehouse prisoners for profit all under the guise that it will save the state money. Anyone who chooses to examine the big picture and analyze objective facts will see that this scheme is doomed. Our choice is whether to reject it now or pay the consequences later.

Proponents of this idea omit critical facts and fail to recognize the importance of the correctional system. We are mandated by the Alaska Constitution to fund public safety. This is critical to the foundation of our society, and gutting our state system for profit in this area of government would be a serious mistake.

Profiteers blast the correctional union for negotiating for their members what they call an exorbitant benefits package. They claim that Cornell would provide an excellent benefit package and wages at or near state hourly rates.

I find it difficult to understand how they can support these claims. The state of Alaska negotiated the terms of employment for its correctional employees as dedicated professionals who do an excellent job serving their community. I do not have confidence that Cornell has Alaskans' interests as their motivation and challenge them to publicly state what the average wages paid to their correctional professionals really are.

Incarceration-for-profit is a bad idea. Our public safety professionals deserve our support. The private prison industry has a much higher level of serious deficiencies than our public system. This is our state, our citizens and our future. Cornell will simply pack their bags and leave when things don't work out.

Consider these recent failures of Cornell Corrections:

May 18, 2000: At the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, Cornell was levied a $304,375 fine for lax security. After an escape from this facility 16 months earlier, another escapee "was able to exit the facility via the administration building roof because all of the security upgrades and improvements ... had not been made," wrote Dennis Cunningham, Cornell's private prison administrator.

April 30, 2000: Just weeks after one lawsuit was settled, another has been filed against Cornell for its operation of a halfway house in Bethel. (The state of Alaska is also a defendant.) This latest lawsuit claims that as far back as 1998 Cornell knew that security and monitoring systems at Tundra Center were inadequate, and a local woman was a victim of rape as a result.

April 16, 2000: Residents of this same Bethel halfway house have settled a lawsuit against the former and current operators that alleged substandard living conditions. The Tundra Center's settlement against Allvest Inc. and parent company Cornell was more than $100,000. The residents suffered appalling living conditions at the center. Toilets were overflowing, broken windows were not repaired during the winter and residents were served contaminated food.

Jan. 4, 2000: Four private prison operators in 33 states, including Cornell, are alleged to have received commission-kickbacks from inmate telephone service. According to attorney Mark Donatelli, the private prison operators received commission-kickbacks as high as 60 percent of gross revenue.

January 1999: The Georgia Department of Corrections found Cornell negligent for lack of dental clinics and lax security at the D. Ray James prison.

December 1998: At Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton, Okla., a convicted child molester with a previous history of escape climbed over the fence and out of Cornell's private prison. Cornell failed to report the escape to authorities for a full day. He was captured five days later in California.

July 1997: Two inmates escaped from Cornell Corrections' Baker facility for men.

February 1996: Four federal detainees escaped from Cornell at Wyatt Detention Facility, Rhode Island. Over several weeks, they cut through a fence with a hacksaw they had smuggled in.

November 1995: Another escape of an inmate from Cornell's Baker Community Correctional Facility.

August 1995: Another escape from Cornell's Baker facility.

These are the some of the facts; there are more. The citizens of Alaska should know the truth. Profit motivates Cornell. Our quality of life, security and future should not be compromised for profit.

I respectfully ask our borough to decline this people-warehousing scheme. Private-for-profit prisons have no place in Alaska, and certainly not in our neighborhood.

James Price


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