Prison bills on hold while issues get new look

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Rival bills to build a large prison are on hold in Juneau as Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration takes a look at corrections issues.

Among the issues to be studied is the relative costs of private and public prisons.

The pause appears to give new breathing room to advocates of building a 1,200-bed private prison in Whittier. Murkowski opposed their plan during last year's election, and his administration had been pushing a rival bill this year to build a large public prison in the Mat-Su Borough.

It gives us some encouragement, Whittier city finance director Don Grande told the Anchorage Daily News.

Murkowski spokesman John Manly reiterated the governor's opposition to the Whittier plan, which would create Alaska's first private prison. But he said the administration will take a second look at a range of issues.

Instead of trying to throw all this stuff into a big stew, I know (Murkowski chief of staff) Jim Clark would like to step back and spend some time on the issue between now and January,'' Manly said.

Among the issues to be reviewed, Manly said, was the need for regional facilities, transportation costs and the relative expense of building and running private and public prisons. The Legislature has been weighing whether to build a prison in Alaska big enough to bring home prisoners now housed in Arizona.

The private advocates questioned our numbers. We told them we will get our numbers worked out over the interim,'' Manly said.

Testimony this year over the rival Whittier and Mat-Su bills featured conflicting and controversial cost claims. Texas-based Cornell Companies and state corrections officials each claimed their approach would be cheaper.

But Manly denied a report this week from a leading private prison backer that the administration plans to set up a public-private working group to explore the prison issues.

Cornell consultant Frank Prewitt, a former state corrections commissioner and the spokesman for a consortium of prison-building companies pushing the Whittier plan, told the Whittier City Council earlier this week that the Murkowski administration had developed misgivings about cost estimates from the state corrections department.

Outlining late-session lobbying efforts on the prison bills, Prewitt wrote in a memo to Whittier officials that Murkowski had finally asked for a time out'' to set up an interim committee to assess the administration's next move. The committee, to include Whittier Prison representatives'' along with legislators and administration officials, would compare costs on the presumption that the cheaper approach would win the administration's endorsement for fast-track legislation next year, Prewitt wrote.

Manly dismissed Prewitt's account as the self-serving work of a partisan in the debate.



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