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Prison issue opens to public opinion

Hearing scheduled for Tuesday night at Kenai Senior Center

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2001

The private prison project is the focus of a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Kenai Senior Center.

"I encourage everybody to come out and inform the assembly of their opinions on the Wildwood site or ideas on any other site," said Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Tim Navarre, referring to the location currently being considered that is owned by the Kenai Natives Association and borders the state's Wildwood Correctional Complex.

The hearing will be broadcast the same as borough assembly meetings.

"We won't be taking any action," Navarre said. "We'll only be taking public testimony."

Last week, Navarre and borough assembly member Bill Popp presented the prison project to the Kenai City Council. Navarre said he also has spoken with several Soldotna City Council members and will try to be included on the agenda for a future council meeting. He wasn't certain about speaking before other communities.

"I know that for the most part, the Kenai Natives Association with the Wildwood site has been to the Kenai (city) council, Nikiski and I believe the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce since this process started," Navarre said.

"We certainly wanted to get with Kenai because we wanted to know what their concerns are with the site, particularly regarding water and sewer."

Where to build the prison isn't what

concerns Grace Merkes, who represents the Sterling area on the assembly.

"I don't favor private prisons," Merkes said. "I pretty much have always felt that correction of prisoners is a job for state government. I don't think it's fair to try and push it off onto a local government, if you will. I think the state should take that responsibility."

Merkes said she didn't object to having a prison on the peninsula but hoped the peninsula's legislative delegation will examine it in greater detail.

"The theory out there is a private prison or none, and I don't think that's right," Merkes said. "The legislators need to look into building the prison under state control."

Like Merkes, Jim Stogsdill, acting Soldotna mayor, said Soldotna's council members are "very concerned about the fact that (the prison) could be privatized."

"The reason, I guess, is that we believe the penal system -- corrections and prisoner rehabilitation -- is a governmental responsibility," Stogsdill said.

Although he recognized economic advantages to constructing and operating the medium security facility, he was concerned with the speed at which the project is moving.

"It seems to us like some of these issues regarding private prisons haven't been thoroughly talked out yet," he said, including the possibility of halfway houses and the infrastructure required for the facility.

"In Kenai, for example -- and I'm not familiar with Kenai's business -- when you have an 800-bed prison, that's 800 toilets flushing 10 times a day. Can their wastewater treatment plant deal with that?"

Stogsdill also questioned the availability of housing and classroom space needed to accommodate families of prison staff and inmates, and voiced concerns over problems other areas have encountered with private prison

operations.

"When you list 15 or 20 or 25 states that are having problems, that should be a flag for us," Stogsdill said. "If they're going to have those kinds of problems, should we expect to have those problems?"

Stogsdill said input from Alaska Department of Corrections was important.

"Last week I saw a Corrections attorney testify in front of (Legislature's) House State Affairs committee who said that -- and I'm summarizing -- a number of things are more important," Stogsdill said.

"Two of the things are expansion of the Fairbanks jail and Bethel jail, both of which are inadequate for their needs. We have a responsibility to have our prisoners here, but at the same time, if there are pressing needs inside the state -- for instance, Fairbanks and Bethel jails -- as opposed to a private prison on the Kenai, why doesn't the Legislature take care of those problems first?"

David Carey and A. Kearlee Wright, candidates for Soldotna mayor, will watch election returns Tuesday evening; however, that didn't keep them from forming opinions about the proposed private prison.

Carey, who said he was on the assembly when it approved state correctional facilities at Spring Creek and Wildwood, claimed the state didn't comply with agreements made during construction of those facilities once the prisons were completed.

"I want to be sure that any promises are in writing regarding the type of facility and the number of prisoners," Carey said. "And absolutely, once those are in writing, there needs to be a vote so the citizens are told in writing what they're being asked to do.

"I do not support the fast track that the prison is on," said the mayoral candidate, adding that hurrying the project was resulting in "not having enough hearings and not asking for a vote."

Like Stogsdill, Carey was concerned over possible impacts to schools and the availability of housing.

"I also have questions about whether the law enforcement community has been taken into account," he said. "There will absolutely be a need for more law enforcement."

Wright said his opinion didn't have anything to do with whether the prison is run privately or by the state.

"My opinion is that I'm opposed (to the prison)," he said. "I'm not comfortable with that type of environment in our communities. And the arrival of the prison will obviously bring in additional people or support units. I don't feel that our schools are prepared for the additional arrival of people or police protection and all the other support units.

"If we have that type of funds, I think it's more appropriate to put them toward family-oriented activities and whatever supports our families and neighborhoods," Wright said.



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