Senate panel takes up bill to build several prisons

Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A plan to expand the state's already overcrowded prison system garnered support from both community leaders and some lawmakers Wednesday.

But its cost may cause lawmakers to ultimately pause while they contemplate a $1 billion budget deficit next year.

''The whole question is going to be dollars,'' said Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell.

Taylor chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which took up a bill that would allow the state to enter 20-year lease agreements with 11 cities and boroughs for new or expanded facilities.

Under Senate Bill 231, communities would float bonds for the $190 million construction costs of the facilities. The state would then pay $72 million annually to operate the prisons and make lease payments to the communities.

Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, said through an earlier statement that it would add more than 1,200 new prison beds while spreading the cost over time. It would include 370 beds in her own district.

The bill would authorize lease agreements with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, North Slope Borough, Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Bethel, Seward, Kenai, Juneau, Dillingham, Kodiak and Kotzebue.

Alaska ended two decades of court oversight due to prison conditions last year that included overcrowding. The state's system remains filled to capacity and about 800 prisoners are housed in Arizona at a cost of about $18 million annually.

Several competing proposals emerged this session to ease overcrowding and bring out-of-state prisoners back to Alaska.

Gov. Tony Knowles introduced a $117 million bill to expand prisons and jails around the state.

Both his and Green's bills would cost the state more than the $65 per day it pays to Arizona for each prisoner housed in its jails.

But supporters of the regional prison plans say they create jobs in Alaska, and put pretrial detainees closer to court facilities, saving the state in transportation costs.

Taylor said if a bill emerges this session, it will likely be Green's measure. That bill increases the number of communities that would participate over the Knowles proposal.

Another proposal offered by the House Finance Committee would authorize a 1,200-bed private prison in Whittier. Similar proposals have been turned back by voters in Delta Junction and Kenai.

Kenai Mayor John Williams said the community would support a state-run 256-bed facility offered under the legislation.

''I believe it's absolute fact that the community will support this type of facility,'' Williams said. He said the city council backs the plan.

State Department of Corrections officials were generally supportive of Green's bill. ''It has the right number of beds in the right locations,'' said Margot Knuth, of the Department of Corrections.

Knuth said the state now operates 15 community jails around the state. This proposal would allow four jails in Dillingham, Kodiak, Kotzebue and the North Slope Borough.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take action on the measure Wednesday. The committee is expected to vote on the measure on Monday, Taylor said.

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