Trying to solve problem of systemic racial bias winning argument for private prison

Is private prison good public policy?

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2001

While the prison bill was moving through the Legislature, some newspaper columnists wrote that Alaska Native interest in the Kenai prison is a ruse by "profiteers" wanting to make money on human suffering. I want to set the record straight. When I try to explain Kenai Natives Association's interest in helping our people who are imprisoned in Arizona, I've been asked why we haven't done anything about it before.

It is a fair question, but the implication isn't. The truth is I do not know why I, and others in the Native community, have been silent for so long about the grossly unequal incarceration rate of Native Alaskans. Most of us, I believe, were unaware of the seriousness of the problem, though hardly a Native family has been spared the touch of this tragedy.

Maybe we have trusted that the justice system would, eventually, become just. Or maybe we have felt powerless. But past omissions do not excuse present inaction.

It is fair to ask the Native community why we have not spoken or acted before. But isn't it equally fair to ask those we entrust with managing state policy why they have ignored so serious an issue for so long?

On New Year's Day, 2001, the headline for a major Anchorage newspaper read: "Prisoner killed in jail." He was Native Alaskan and not the first to die in Alaska's prisons. Three other prisoners died in state care about the same time, two by their own hands and one by a state Department of Corrections officer. The Department of Corrections replied, in an interview with the paper, that "The department is investigating all four but will not necessarily make public what it finds." The department spokesman said, "he doesn't know why none of the seven security officials on duty saw Sage being killed on video monitors. ..."

When asked whether I believe a privately operated prison is good public policy, I am a simple person, and I understand that Corrections is a difficult profession, but what private company could get away with failing to disclose every aspect of the death of a human being entrusted to its care? Where were the seven security officials during the reported 30 minutes it took for Mr. Sage to be strangled and beaten to death?

I am not arguing that private prisons are better than state of Alaska prisons. But the National Council of State Governments reports that private prisons are managed just as well as government prisons. It is a tough business and incidents happen.

KNA has partnered with Cornell Companies to build and operate a prison. The prison will be government owned and privately operated and was the subject of a competitive bid process, in spite of deliberate misrepresentation to the contrary. Our partner, Cornell Companies, manages over 14,000 juvenile detention and prison beds, nearly five times more prisoners than the state supervises, with few incidents.

The Alaska Legislature has passed enabling legislation, and the governor can require that the prison be built and operated to state standards.

The ruse, if any, lies not in the meaningful participation of the Native community; it lies in the disingenuous misrepresentation of facts about the Kenai prison by those who are philosophically opposed to privatization.

I'm asking you to listen to the facts and give my concerns a fair hearing. This is our first attempt to become meaningful stakeholders in a problem that starts with our people and is aggravated by well-intended, but unresponsive, public policies. In my opinion, the problem of systemic racial bias trumps the philosophical debate over the merits of privatization. I hope the public agrees.

Elsie Maillelle-Hendryx is the vice president of the Kenai Natives Association.

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