Kenai Natives Association Inc. has been looking for ways to use its land. So when the proposal for a privately run prison at Fort Greely stalled, KNA made an offer.
"If it doesn't work at Fort Greely, we want to be the first in line for consideration," said Michael Slezak, chief operating officer for the Native corporation.
He said KNA has considered the number of prisoners Alaska houses at the Central Arizona Detention Center, and even if the Fort Greely project works out, the state may want a second privately run prison.
So, KNA approached Dale Bagley, mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, with a proposal modeled after the Fort Greely plan. The state would contract with the borough to house prisoners, and the borough would contract with KNA to supply and operate the prison. The proposed $60 million prison could create 300 jobs or more, KNA estimates. On July 25, Bagley and Richard Segura, KNA president, sent a joint letter to put the proposal to Gov. Tony Knowles.
Margaret Pugh, commissioner of the Department of Corrections,said the department is still committed to opening a privately run prison at Fort Greely. It would take an act of the Legislature before the department could consider a new prison at Wildwood, said Bruce Richards, special assistant to the commissioner.
Existing legislation authorizes the department specifically to contract with the city of Delta Junction, which would hire a private contractor to open a prison in an existing building at Fort Greely.
"I have a bill authorizing me to do that. I don't have a bill authorizing me to do anything else," Pugh said.
Even with a prison at Fort Greely, though, the state will need more prison and jail beds, she wrote in a July 31 letter to Bagley.
The state has been under pressure from a court order to reduce crowding in its prisons, which house convicted felons, and its jails, which house lesser offenders and prisoners awaiting trial. Since 1995, it has sent convicted felons to Central Arizona, where roughly 800 are lodged today. However, Pugh said she would like to house Alaska prisoners in Alaska.
During his first term, Knowles proposed expanding state-run jails in Fairbanks, Bethel, Juneau and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, replacing the Sixth Avenue Correctional Center in Anchorage and adding to the Wildwood and Palmer correctional centers.
Instead, the Legislature passed House Bill 53, which authorized the state to work with Anchorage to replace the municipally owned Sixth Avenue Correctional Center and to contract with Delta Junction to open a privately run prison at Fort Greely. Pugh said she hopes the Fort Greely prison, which would have 800 to 1,000 beds, can open by 2003.
Richards said Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, then-Rep. Mark Hodgins, R-Kenai, Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer and Rep. Gary Davis, R-Soldotna voted for HB 53. Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, voted against it.
Ward said building a private prison would bring Alaska prisoners back from Arizona at much less cost than expanding jails and prisons around the state.
"What the governor wanted to do did make sense, if you have lots of money," Ward said. "There's the problem. We didn't have lots of money."
Replacement of the Sixth Avenue jail is under way.
The problem with a Fort Greely prison is the proposed national missile defense system, which seemingly would use the same buildings as the prison, said Pete Hallgren, director of economic development for the city of Delta Junction.
The federal Office of Economic Adjustment, which was to grant Delta Junction funding for a prison feasibility study, is withholding the money until it is clear what Fort Greely space is surplus.
The city considered erecting a new building for the prison, perhaps at less cost, Hallgren said. The Office of Economic Adjustment was amenable to that, he said, but HB 53 does not allow for construction of a new building. Ward said that is something the Legislature will not change.
"If you're going to build a new building, you wouldn't build it in Delta Junction," he said. "You'd build it near a city. It should go in Anchorage, but Anchorage doesn't want a new prison. So, it's going to be Palmer, Kenai or Seward."
Ward said Delta Junction could have the Fort Greely site if the mayor and city council were willing to push. He said his understanding is that the base could accommodate the missiles and the prison.
"I have no idea where Jerry Ward is getting his information," Hallgren said. "The city totally disagrees with that."
He said the city council remains committed to a feasibility study and to building the prison if it proves financially feasible. Last spring, though, a group of citizens tried to circulate a petition to recall several city council members. The city clerk determined that only one of five claims on the petition could be certified. The critics have gone to court claiming all five should be certified.
Meanwhile, Allvest Inc. signed a contract with Delta Junction in 1999 to build and run a prison financed and owned by the city, Hallgren said. Now, Allvest is suing, claiming the city's pursuit of a prison without it violates the contract.
Bagley said he wants the borough to be ready in case the Fort Greely prison fails to happen or in case the state needs another one.
"But any time you can get 300 jobs to a community, you'd better take a hard look," he said. "Wildwood is already there. Any concerns people would have with a prison they'd already have with Wildwood."
Bagley said he may introduce a resolution to support the proposal at the assembly's Aug. 15 meeting. Assembly president Bill Popp of Kenai said there must be public hearings.
"We need to talk a lot," he said. "This is a big step. We need public support before we move forward."
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