Whittier prison bill now includes beds in Bethel

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill calling for a private prison to be built in Whittier now also calls for expanding a public prison in Bethel. The measure passed the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.

The change could broaden support for the bill, although the administration and some legislators still don't like it.

The bill's chief backer, Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, said he added the 96-bed expansion at Bethel because that seemed to be the highest priority for the Department of Corrections.

''I believe this is a much stronger bill than the initial Whittier bill by itself,'' Harris said.

The new version also calls for 1,000 private prison beds in Whittier, instead of 1,200 as initially proposed. Harris said 1,200 may be more than needed, particularly if 96 beds are added in Bethel.

Margot Knuth of the Department of Corrections said the department still has problems with the bill, partly because it requires construction to start on the Whittier prison before the Bethel expansion is authorized.

If the Whittier prison fails to materialize -- as have two other private prison proposals the Legislature backed in previous years -- the Bethel jail won't be expanded.

''I think it's inappropriate to tie the projects to each other,'' Knuth said.

Previous proposals to build private prisons in Delta Junction and in Kenai died in the face of community opposition. Whittier Mayor Ben Butler has said his community is solidly behind the proposal.

Harris said by tying the Bethel and Whittier deals together, ''this gives the administration more of a drive to make them both happen, not just one.''

House Bill 498 calls for the state to enter into a 25-year contract with the city of Whittier to provide prison space. The city would then contract with Cornell to build and operate the prison.

The new version also calls for selling $17.9 million in certificates of participation -- a type of bond issue -- to expand the Bethel jail.

Harris told the committee Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel, had asked for the Bethel expansion. Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, has also voiced support for building a prison in Bethel to boost the economy there.

''I think adding beds in Bethel is adding jobs in Bethel,'' Halford said. He did not say whether he would support the specific proposal in House Bill 498.

Lawmakers are looking at several competing prison proposals this year.

Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, is sponsoring a bill that would have 11 cities and boroughs float $190 million in bonds to build or expand prisons and lease them to the state. The state would pay $72 million annually to operate the prisons and make lease payments to the communities.

The Knowles administration has a proposal to sell $117 million bonds to add 563 beds to prisons in Palmer, Bethel, Fairbanks and Seward and design future prison expansions.

The Department of Corrections has opposed the private prison bill.

Knuth said building one large prison in Whittier does not address the need for beds near offenders' communities. That need is most critical for those who haven't been sentenced because it is impractical to transport them from distant prisons to make court appearances.

The Bethel addition to House Bill 498 is intended to partly address that concern.

Knuth also has complained that language stating that the Legislature intends to spend no more than $89 to $91 a day on the Whittier prison is not binding, and the actual cost could be higher.

And she said allowing the local community to choose the company that will run the prison is not necessarily in the state's best interests because Whittier may have had other criteria in selecting the company than the state would have.

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