Setting himself apart from the Soldotna City Council, Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, added his support to legislation approving the Kenai Peninsula Borough as the home of Alaska's first private prison.
"I don't say that all our concerns have been addressed," said Lancaster, a member of the House Finance Committee, of concerns expressed to the borough in a letter sent by Lancaster, Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, and Sen. John Torgerson, R-Soldotna. "But we've had a lot of good dialogue and got a lot of good questions answered. Drew (Scalzi) and I are OK with this."
Scalzi had added his name as a co-sponsor of the legislation. The bill is on the House calendar for Tuesday.
Sponsored by Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, the house bill seeks to increase prison space in Alaska through construction of an 800- to 1,000-bed, medium-security privately operated prison on the Kenai Peninsula. The additional bed space would make it possible to return some 800 Alaska inmates currently housed in a private prison in Florence, Ariz.
Land owned by the Kenai Natives Association that borders Wildwood Correctional Complex and sits just outside the Kenai city limits is being considered by the borough as the site of the facility.
The legislation -- HB 149 -- seeks to save state dollars by setting a per day per inmate rate that would be "18 to 20 percent less than the current average per diem rate for all state facilities," or approximately $89 per day per inmate. The legislation also requires:
n A 20-year agreement for the state to lease the space from the borough;
n The borough will work with one or more third-party contractors who will construct and operate the facility, providing custody, care and discipline services, and selected through a competitive process;
n The facility will have a minimum 800 prison beds;
n Lease payments will cover development, construction and operating costs;
n The Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner may direct the borough to terminate its contract with the third-party contractor if the contractor is unable to provide custody, care and discipline of inmates; and
n The commissioner may not enter into the lease if the borough is unable to ensure that custody, care and discipline will be provided in accordance with state laws.
Lancaster originally had concerns the project would be single-sourced rather than go through a competitive bid process. However, the Soldotna legislator said that issue was adequately addressed by wording in the legislation approving the "request-for-qualification" process already undertaken by the borough in selecting a team headed by Cornell Corrections to do the planning and promotion of the project. Kenai Natives Association also is part of the team.
"The true story is, it'll probably be Cornell all the way. I don't believe they'll have to go through another bid," Lancaster said.
However, he said wording in the contract between the borough and Cornell included a 60-day "get-away clause" during which either party could change their minds.
Difficulty in beating the daily rate of state-operated prisons is an argument used by proponents of private prisons in the private vs. public prison debate.
"We all want people to get the best money for their buck," Lancaster said. "(The state's) contract is with the borough. I can't tell them what to pay the guy guarding the gate. My concern is what it'll cost the state to have a bed there."
Liability also has been a concern as Alaska considers developing its own private prison. However, Lancaster said he was assured by Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Tim Navarre that the contractor would provide adequate insurance.
"I think we all feel comfortable where we're at," Lancaster said. "We don't have a private prison in Alaska, so there's a certain amount of trial and error in this process. We all want to end up with the best product possible. I don't think anybody's out to get anybody. The goal is to bring our inmates home and rehabilitate them to be productive citizens in our state."
Then there's the economic push to bring back to Alaska dollars currently paid to the private prison operator in Arizona, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
"We want that $100 million to be spent in Alaska on Alaskans," Lancaster said.
The legislator's comments strongly contrast a resolution recently passed by his hometown city council members.
"The Soldotna City Council is still very much opposed to a private prison," said newly elected mayor David Carey. "We would absolutely want to see that the amount per day per inmate is significantly less than if done as a public prison."
Carey pointed to the $54 per day per inmate currently paid to CCA, which, at 800 inmates a year, totals $15.7 million. The peninsula prison, at $89 per day per inmate, based on 800 inmates, would reach annual costs of $25.9 million.
"There needs to be some real data showing why the taxpayers of the state should bring (the prisoners) back," Carey said.
"We believe that things are being rushed, and that means not having nearly the amount of public meetings and also means we don't get a lot of the information up front," the Soldotna mayor said. "Before this decision is made, we should clearly know the effects on a community and right now there are no studies about the effects on the Kenai Peninsula of putting that facility here."
Pete Sprague, who represents Soldotna on the assembly, was the only assembly member to oppose the contract between Cornell and the borough.
"I'm sure he had good reasons for supporting it," Sprague said of Lancaster's support of the private prison legislation.
Referencing a letter in which Lancaster expressed his concern about the project, Sprague said, "My no vote was only partially based on the letter. It was also based on what the city of Soldotna has said, what the city of Kenai has not said and just a lot of public opinion."
The assembly will address acquisition of the proposed prison site from the Kenai Natives Association through sale or long-term lease at its Tuesday meeting.
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