Responding to the concerns of its membership, Public Employees Local 71 has joined the anti-private-prison effort and formed a group called Public Safety Yes -- Private Prison No.
"I got a call from several members (on the Kenai Peninsula) that were concerned about the private prison issue," said Jim Ashton, assistant business manager for Local 71. "They wondered what we, as a local, were going to do."
The bulk of Local 71's members are blue-collar state workers, such as grader operators and prison maintenance personnel. Members also include airport custodians and workers in the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna school districts. Approximately 250 members live on the Kenai Peninsula.
Before deciding how to respond, Ashton hired Ivan Moore Research, an Anchorage-based firm, to conduct a poll of 200 peninsula residents. The response, Ashton said, showed overwhelming opposition to the 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security private prison on which Kenai Peninsula Borough residents will vote Oct. 2.
According to Moore, 94 percent of those contacted were Kenai, Nikiski, Soldotna, Homer and Seward residents. The remaining 6 percent were from smaller peninsula communities, such as Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and Ninilchik.
"We tried to keep it generic to find out whether our members were feeling differently from people in the area," Ashton said. "The questions were fairly ambiguous. I specifically asked that they not write a poll geared to get a certain answer. It was very open-ended."
The poll question asked, "In the Kenai Peninsula elections on October 2, there will be a ballot question concerning the construction of a privately operated prison on the Kenai Peninsula. Based on what you know about this issue, do you favor or oppose the private prison?"
The responses were:
n 19 percent strongly favor,
n 15.8 percent mildly favor,
n 14.7 percent mildly oppose,
n 33.4 percent strongly oppose; and
n 17.1 percent unsure.
"At this moment in time, it looks good for the 'no' group," Moore said. "Basically, quite a lot would need to be done to turn it around within the next couple of weeks."
Also fueling the decision to jump into the private prison battle was the approach taken by the pro-prison ballot group, Concerned Citizens For Responsible Economic Development, and Cornell Companies. Cornell was selected by the Kenai Peninsula Borough to lead the team responsible for planning and promoting the prison.
"Their signs are so red, white and blue and they say, 'Vote for jobs,'" Ashton said. "They don't say, 'Vote for a prison.'
"I feel they need to say, 'Let's make Kenai the prison capital of Alaska.'"
Cornell's impact on the vote also concerned Local 71 members.
"There's something wrong with a big company coming in and just buying a community," Ashton said.
The position of the new group is that if the state needs more prison beds, the focus should be on expanding regional facilities, which, according to Ashton, were built to accommodate expansion.
"And if they're saying they want to bring prisoners back to Alaska, that's an untruth," he said. "There's a lot of prisoners that want to stay south. And if they're from northern regions (of Alaska), they're not going to be going home."
Ashton said another concern about a privately operated prison is that employment opportunities "aren't the bottom line. It's opening up a facility where they can make megabucks off the inmates."
Ashton reiterated that Public Safety Yes -- Private Prison No was specifically formed as a response to the request of Public Employees Local 71 membership.
"Sometimes we do things for the membership just to do things," he said. "Sometimes we react because we feel strongly. The more I got into this subject, the stronger I felt that we needed to put up an honest fight."
Information recently distributed by Ashton's group lists a Kenai post office address, which Ashton said was taken out by Local 71's peninsula membership. The radio ad paid for by the group features the voice of Keith Perrin, a retired sergeant with the Alaska State Troopers. According to Ashton, Perrin, an Anchorage resident who spends time on the peninsula, is a part of Public Safety Employees Association. PSEA's membership includes correctional officers and, Ashton said, has contributed to Public Safety Yes -- Private Prison No.
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