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House passes private prison bill

Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill clearing the way for a 1,000-bed private prison in Whittier passed the House on Monday.

The House voted 24-to-14 for the measure, which calls for the state to contract with the city of Whittier to house state inmates. Whittier, in turn, would contract with Cornell Companies Inc. to build and operate the prison.

The bill also would expand a 92-bed state prison in Bethel by 96 beds.

Proponents say a Whittier facility will be cheaper than building new state prisons, it will bring prisoners from an Arizona private prison back to Alaska, and it will boost the town's economy.

''What we're doing here is certainly bringing folks home,'' said Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River. ''We are giving a struggling community that has turned the corner and wants to have a new future a chance to do it.''

Opponents said the money could be better spent on education, and that the prison contractor was not chosen through a truly competitive process.

This is the fourth time a private prison proposal has come up and the third time a bill authorizing such a prison has passed the Legislature. Previous efforts were derailed by community opposition.

Ben Butler, the mayor of Whittier, said that won't happen this time because most of Whittier's 182 residents have signed a petition supporting the prison.

Margot Knuth of the state Department of Corrections has said allowing Whittier to choose the company that will run the prison, which the bill does, is not in the state's best interest.

Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, also objected to the selection process.

''I've seen this bill in essentially four different forms. There's been different locations and different justifications each time,'' Croft said.

''What stays the same every single time I see this is it's going to the same corporation,'' Croft said, ''with the same powerful, influential people pushing it.''

Cornell Companies was to be the contractor in previous proposals for private prisons in Delta Junction and Kenai.

Veco, an Anchorage oil field service and construction firm whose employees contribute heavily to political campaigns, is part of the consortium that would build the prison.

Rep. Andrew Halcro, R-Anchorage, said the state comes out ahead by keeping the prisoners in Arizona at $52 a day, rather than housing them in Whittier at the $89-$91 a day called for in the bill.

But Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said Whittier is cheaper than the new public jail in Anchorage, which has an operating cost of $138 per prisoner per day.

''I think we're saving $15 million,'' Rokeberg said.

Knuth of the Corrections Department has said 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.

Voting against the bill were Democrats Ethan Berkowitz, Sharon Cissna, Harry Crawford, Croft, John Davies, Gretchen Guess, Joe Hayes and Beth Kerttula along with Republicans Joe Green, Halcro, Ken Lancaster, Lesil McGuire, Lisa Murkowski and Drew Scalzi.

Scott Ogan and Carl Moses were absent.

The measure could come back up for a reconsideration vote Tuesday. If the outcome does not change, it will go to the Senate for consideration.

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The bill is House Bill 498.



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