JUNEAU (AP) -- Stressing the need to rehabilitate Alaska prisoners in Alaska, state senators Wednesday gave their approval for a lease with a private prison on the Kenai Peninsula.
A mix of Republican and Democrat senators voted 12-8 in favor of House Bill 149, authorizing the Department of Corrections to enter into a lease agreement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough for an 800-bed, medium security private prison. The borough has entered into a partnership with Cornell Corrections to design, build and operate the prison.
Since 1995, the state has been housing up to 800 prisoners at a private prison in Arizona at an annual cost of nearly $19 million. Supporters of the private prison say it is important to bring Alaska prisoners home, even though it could cost $8 million more per year.
Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, said current rehabilitation methods are not working for Alaska Natives, especially those housed in Arizona.
''In the Native culture, as well as in most other cultures, if you hurt somebody and you owe a debt, you make that person whole, you make the victim whole, or the community whole,'' Ward said. ''Our society is different. When we have someone commit a crime, a terrible crime, maybe in Stevens Village, instead of making restitution and earning their way back into the community, they get plunked up and put it Arizona.''
Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, said Native groups are greatly concerned about a prison population that regularly approaches 40 percent Native. She said she was voting for the bill after talking to the Kenai Natives Association and other groups that hope to use culturally relevant rehabilitation at the new prison.
''It hasn't worked with what we have now on counseling the prisoners who are there in a culturally relevant way,'' she said. ''We certainly can do more.''
But other senators questioned why that has not already happened. Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said the private prison somehow has been linked with rehabilitation of Alaska Natives.
''It seems to have taken on a life of its own,'' Therriault said.
Sen. Randy Phillips, R-Eagle River, said his constituents question adding $8 million to the cost of state government.
''This whole process needs to be examined,'' Phillips said. ''It's full of holes.''
Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, cited the importance of the economic effects of incarcerating prisoners in Alaska.
''Bringing this industry back to Alaska is just as important as it is to the issue of whether we bring Natives back home,'' he said.
The logic of saving money by sending prisoners Outside could be applied to education too, Austerman said, by reverting to Alaska's ''dark ages'' and sending high school students to the Lower 48.
Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said the proposal lacks key provisions for making the contractor comply with state policies. Other states using private prisons have a system of fines for noncompliance. HB 49 merely allows cancellation of the entire contract.
''It's an all-or-nothing position,'' he said. ''The commissioner would be in an untenable situation.''
Ellis also said it was dangerous to combine the profit motive with the government's power to take away a person's freedom.
''The way to meet your bottom line and enhance your profit is to cut services, to cut corners, to cut the treatment and rehabilitation,'' Ellis said.
Phillips, Therriault and Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, joined Democrats Ellis and Bettye Davis of Anchorage, Kim Elton of Juneau, Lyman Hoffman of Bethel and Donny Olson of Nome in opposing the bill.
The measure could be reconsidered Thursday before being sent back to the House for concurrence in Senate changes.
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