Council hears prison pitch

Cornell takes case to Soldotna

Posted: Friday, August 10, 2001

Meeting the opposition head on, Mike Gilliland, spokesperson for Cornell Corrections Inc., took the hot seat before the Soldotna City Council Wednesday evening.

Gilliland spent more than an hour addressing the council's concerns about the construction and operation of an 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security private prison being considered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Under contract with the borough, Cornell successfully promoted the project to the Alaska Legislature. In October, borough voters will decide whether the project continues or falls by the wayside.

The Soldotna council took a strong stand against the prison in April. Members unanimously passed a resolution opposing the project for reasons that included issues of safety, socioeconomic impacts, methods of operation, monitoring of inmates, and the absence of a facility design and plan for staffing and training of staff.

"The Soldotna City Council supports the construction of a public rather than private prison within this area," the resolution read. "The city council opposes any private prison proposal unless much more information is provided to evaluate the safety and cost savings projected from using a privately operated facility."

The council further stated it would not support the prison unless it met the same staffing, training and security standards as those maintained by state-operated correctional facilities.

Gilliland, who was hired as a warden for Cornell after retiring from the federal prison system in 1998, offered the council a tour inside a Cornell facility via pictures of control rooms, cell blocks, dining facilities and recreation areas.

"What you see in movies is not what happens in our facilities," Gilliland said, stressing the companies focus on safety and cleanliness.

He characterized Cornell as "a treatment-oriented company" and stressed that its first goal is to "keep communities safe." An informational packet included examples of Cornell's interaction with communities where the company's facilities are located.

"I am not aware of any place that's asked us to leave once we're in. We know how to treat people," Gilliland said.

Council member Joyce Cox asked what treatment programs would be offered at the proposed facility. Gilliland's list included Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and therapeutic communities where inmates with common problems are grouped together.

"I don't know exactly what programs would look like here. That's where we'll look to the local Native community," Gilliland said, referring to Kenai Natives Association's expressed interest in developing culturally relevant treatment programs.

When Vice Mayor Jim Stogsdill asked if Cornell operated any unprofitable facilities, Gilliland pointed to the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, R.I., where he had been a warden. Cornell has operated that facility since 1993 through a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service.

"I don't know what the future of that contract is," he said.

Earlier in his presentation, Gilliland had compared the 302-bed medium- to maximum-security adult male pretrial facility there to the prison being proposed for the borough.

Stogsdill followed up by asking if Cornell used reduction of treatment programs or staff as a cost-savings measure.

"That wouldn't be smart," Gilliland said of cutting programs. "And we don't vacate posts to save dollars."

City Manager Tom Boedeker focused on Cornell's starting pay for correctional officers at the proposed facility and Gilliland said $13.50 would be the average hourly rate for an inexperienced correctional officer who had completed training and was ready to work.

Saying the water and sewer use of 800 inmates and 212 staff positions would be comparable to the city of Soldotna, Public Works Director Steve Bonebrake asked if discussions had been held with the city of Kenai concerning issues of water and waste treatment. Gilliland said he had not personally been involved in any conversations with the city.

Police Chief Shirley Warner pointed out that it has become difficult to fill law enforcement positions across Alaska.

"I'm curious where you think you're going to get employees," she said.

"That's one of those things I need to determine while I'm here," Gilliland said, estimating the facility would require more than 100 security-related employees.

When asked by Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey whether Cornell would release inmates to the immediate area, Gilliland responded that inmates would not be released here unless they are from here.

One question from the public sought Gilliland's response to individuals who believe that public safety duties, such as watching criminals, does not belong in the hands of private enterprise.

"I'm not going to change everyone's mind," Gilliland said, urging people of that opinion to investigate Cornell's record.

Carey brought the question-and-answer session to a close, announcing that a public forum to address the subject further was planned prior to the October election.

But near the end of Wednesday's regular council meeting that followed the work session, those plans changed.

"I heard nothing here tonight that changed my mind regarding our resolution, did any of you?" Stogsdill asked his fellow council members. No one indicated they had.

Stogsdill also told the mayor that it is his opinion that if a public forum were to be held, as little time as possible should be spent on the prison.

"We'd just be wasting our time, to be quite frank," he said, adding more time should be devoted to the city's own bond issue for a new event center, which will also be on the ballot. Cox agreed, saying educating the public on the prison ballot measure was the job of the borough, not the city.

Carey then suggested a table for information from Cornell could be provided instead. The four members of the council in attendance did not object to that proposal.

Clarion reporter Jay Barrett contributed to this story.

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