Soldotna council says 'no' to prison

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

The Soldotna City Council does not want a private prison built on the Kenai Peninsula, unless it is run up to the standards of a public prison.

By a 6-to-0 vote Wednesday night, the council sent a clear message to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and the Alaska Legislature that a private prison is not as good as a state prison. The resolution also called for a socioeconomic analysis to find out if the peninsula would be a feasible and prudent location for the prison.

"We thought it was important for the Legislature to know how the city of Soldotna feels about a private prison," said Soldotna Vice Mayor Jim Stogsdill Thursday morning. "Americans value their freedom, and when we take away that freedom through incarceration, it is not proper to turn them over to a company that wants to make money off of them."

He said the resolution was intended to tell the Legislature that while there is opposition to a private prison, a state-run institution would be acceptable to many residents.

"A prison run by the state is a good thing. That's what we're telling the Legislature," he said. "Much of the opposition would vanish if the state of Alaska Department of Corrections ran the prison. Then it wouldn't bother us. We'd be happy."

The resolution held open the possibility of the acceptability of a private prison if it was guaranteed to be operated up to state-run prison standards as far as staffing, training and security is concerned.

Those are the same concerns expressed by Grace Merkes, who represents Sterling on the borough assembly.

"I have never seen any numbers as far as how feasible it is to run a private prison and pay the debt service," Merkes said. "I wasn't surprised (at Soldotna's resolution); Mr. Stogsdill gave that very opinion at the meeting in Kenai."

Assembly member Bill Popp, of Kenai, said he welcomed Soldotna's comments.

"I'm really glad they stepped up to the plate and took a stand on what they're looking for. They're the first community to step forward and make a statement," he said. "I'm glad to get their input. Those are important points that we'll address in the process as we move down to the decision to move forward to build. But we have a long way to go."

Borough Assembly President Tim Navarre, who also represents Kenai, attended Wednesday's meeting.

"I believe Soldotna's resolution has some of the same concerns the assembly has raised," he said Thursday. "That is, if there is a private prison, we need to make sure that there's enough safety, training, security and personnel, and that it has to be the right thing for the borough and cities to get into."

Stogsdill also expressed unease with how fast the assembly and Legislature are moving on the issue.

"The impression of a lot of folks is that this is moving very quickly," Stogsdill said. "Information seems sporadic and not as accurate as we would hope."

Popp said the process could take some time, though.

"The issues of staffing, and private versus state, and all the others the city has expressed concerns about, we'll need to address as we embark on what will be a 10-month to one-year-long process to decide whether to go forward with this," he said.

Stogsdill conceded that the assembly is doing what it needs to do to avoid any problems if the Legislature approves a private prison in Kenai.

"I don't think the assembly wants to do any harm to anyone in the borough. They're doing the best they can," Stogsdill said. "But the move toward a private prison is a mistake."

The council also questioned the cost-effectiveness of operating a private versus public prison in Kenai.

While it costs $54 a day to house an Alaska prisoner at a private prison in Arizona, according to figures presented at public meetings, an inmate would cost $89 a day at a private prison in Kenai. That compares to $90 a day for a prisoner in a state prison in Alaska, which is what Stogsdill said he heard from the Department of Corrections at the assembly's public hearing in Kenai on March 27.

It would cost the state $7 million more a year to house the 800 Alaskans in the Arizona prison than here in the state, but only $300,000 more a year than that for the inmates to be housed in a state-run operation, Stogsdill said.

"Money-wise, the private prison is not a good deal at all."

Stogsdill also called on the assembly to put the issue to a vote of the people, something it has so far refused to do.

"What's the harm of a vote?" he said. "What the people feel is the best information you're ever going to get. I don't think it will hurt at all, and it will be beneficial."

He said a ballot would probably be "fairly complex," with perhaps two questions.

"Clearly we can't put everything out to a vote, but in the greater sense, there's no harm in asking residents if they want a prison, and if they want it run by the state or a private company," he said.

Navarre said now is not the time for a vote.

"We could have a vote right now, but it wouldn't mean a thing. We want to educate the public as the borough and assembly proceeds, and if at some time in the future, and it warrants a vote of the people, we'll move forward," Navarre said. "Right now, people will vote against it just because of the unknowns."

On Tuesday night the assembly postponed a vote on granting a contract to Cornell Companies for the planning, promotion and potentially the design, construction and operation of the private prison until 7 tonight in the assembly chamber (See related story, page A-1).

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