JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles has signed a bill allowing the state to lease private prison space on the Kenai Peninsula.
House Bill 149 authorizes 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 Group and several associated companies to design, build and operate the prison.
The Legislature approved the measure over objections from some lawmakers who said it amounted to a sole-source contract with the borough, and that the borough had chosen its partner through a process that did not require the winning proposal to be the best deal for the state.
Knowles' spokesman Bob King said the governor shared those concerns, but his signature does not obligate the state to sign a contract.
''The bill states that the Department of Corrections may enter into an agreement, and the department has clearly stated that any such agreement has to describe how to maximize the purchasing power of public funds,'' King said.
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's important to bring Alaska prisoners home, even though it could cost an additional $8 million a year.
One supporter, Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, has said that current rehabilitation methods are not working for Alaska Natives, especially those in Arizona.
The new law calls for the prison operator to provide culturally relevant counseling services to Alaska Natives.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said he was pleased that Knowles signed the bill, but said many hurdles remain before the walls and fences go up.
''I'd say the work is just beginning,'' Bagley said.
The borough still has to conduct a feasibility study, he said, and there's a good chance that borough residents will be voting on the project this fall. Some residents are pushing to get a measure on the ballot that would prohibit private prisons in the borough.
The borough must negotiate the contract with the state, as well as contracts for leasing or buying the land and designing, building and operating the prison.
The private partnership the borough intends to work with on those issues is led by Cornell Corrections Group, which is working with the Kenai Natives Association, Livingston Slone Inc. and Neeser/Veco.
Knowles said the bill is one step toward meeting Alaska's statewide and regional prison needs, but doesn't go all the way.
''The Kenai is on the department's list for more needed beds, but I will continue to advocate jail and prison expansion in other regions of Alaska,'' Knowles said.
The Legislature also needs to look at alternatives to prison where appropriate and try to reduce the need for prisons through early childhood programs, he said.
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